Whether there are plausible law suits against the police department in relation to domestic violence murder?

Author: LegalEase Solutions

QUESTION PRESENTED

Whether there are plausible law suits against the police department in relation to the death of Sheena Morris?

 SHORT ANSWER

A claim under § 1983 is possible against the police department in relation to the death of Sheena Morris. But, in order to succeed, the Plaintiffs must sustain the high burden of proving deliberate indifference and a lack of training of the police officers in attending the domestic violence call and proceeding with the investigation. Further, they have to overcome the robust defense of qualified immunity available to the police officers.

RESEARCH FINDINGS

“Section 1983 provides a claim against anyone who ‘under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State’ violates another’s constitutional rights.” Whitley v. Hanna, 726 F.3d 631, 638 (5th Cir. 2013) cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 1935, 188 L. Ed. 2d 960 (2014) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983).

“The purpose of § 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails.” Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992) (citing Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 254–257, (1978)).

“To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” Moore v. Willis Indep. Sch. Dist., 233 F.3d 871, 874 (5th Cir. 2000).

Further, “[a] plaintiff must establish that the defendant was either personally involved in the deprivation or that his wrongful actions were causally connected to the deprivation.” James v. Texas Collin Cnty., 535 F.3d 365, 373 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Pasadena Indep. Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 439, 443 (5th Cir.1999)).

The US Supreme Court has held that “a municipality can be found liable under § 1983 only where the municipality itself causes the constitutional violation at issue.” City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989) (citing Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The court’s “first inquiry in any case alleging municipal liability under § 1983 is the question whether there is a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation.” Id.

The Supreme Court has laid down that “where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact” Id., at 388, then “the inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability …” Id.

Further, it is settled law that municipal liability under § 1983 attaches only where “a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-84 (1986).

“In resolving the issue of a city’s liability, the focus must be on adequacy of the training program in relation to the tasks the particular officers must perform.” City of Canton, supra, 489 U.S. at 390. “Moreover, for liability to attach in this circumstance the identified deficiency in a city’s training program must be closely related to the ultimate injury.” Id., 489 U.S. at 391.

The law relating to the need for training can be summarized as:

[I]t may happen that in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.

Id., 489 U.S. at 390.

Thus, “deliberate indifference is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs of Bryan Cnty., Okl. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 410 (1997) (internal citations omitted).

“Thus, when city policymakers are on actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights, the city may be deemed deliberately indifferent if the policymakers choose to retain that program.” Connick v. Thompson, 131 S. Ct. 1350, 1360, 179 L. Ed. 2d 417 (2011).

Qualified immunity

A §1983 claim, in order to succeed, has to overcome the hurdle of qualified immunity. “[Governments] are not vicariously liable under § 1983 for their employees’ actions.” Connick, supra, 131 S. Ct. at 1359 (citing Canton, supra, 489 U.S., at 392; Brown, supra, 520 U.S. at 403).

Therefore, “Plaintiffs who seek to impose liability on local governments under § 1983 must prove that ‘action pursuant to official municipal policy’ caused their injury.” Id. (quoting Monell, supra, 436 U.S., at 691). “Official municipal policy includes the decisions of a government’s lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law.” Id.

The US Supreme Court has held that “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982).

In other words, “[q]ualified immunity is applicable unless the official’s conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009).

The US Supreme Court observed that “[q]ualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Id., 555 U.S. at 231.

Thus, [q]ualified immunity “provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S. Ct. 1092, 1096, 89 L. Ed. 2d 271 (1986). Also, “officials are immune unless ‘the law clearly proscribed the actions’ they took.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987) (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 528 (1985)).

Anderson court has summarized the law relating to qualified immunity as:

The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has previously been held unlawful … but it is to say that in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.

Id., 483 U.S. at 640 (citing Mitchell, supra, 472 U.S., at 535, n. 12).

However, “[w]hen government officials abuse their offices, ‘action[s] for damages may offer the only realistic avenue for vindication of constitutional guarantees.’”Id., 483 U.S. at 638 (quoting Harlow, supra, 457 U.S., at 814).

In the instant case, the Bradenton Beach Police Officers Bazell and Tskiri were derelict in their duties as no attempt was made by them to prevent further injury to Ms. Morris. They failed to put out a BOLO (Be On Look Out) on Genoese after learning from Ms. Morris of his involvement in the altercation that led to the phone call. Moreover, the officers failed to notice Ms. Morris’ injuries to be consistent with domestic violence. Further, they notified the dispatcher to change the title of the call from “domestic” to “disturbance.” Had they followed up the incident as domestic violence, the subsequent death of Ms. Morris could have been avoided. This amounted to ‘deliberate indifference to the rights of [Ms. Morris] with whom the police come into contact’ as laid down in City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989). Thus, the “municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs of Bryan Cnty., Okl. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 410 (1997).The officers investigating the death of Ms. Morris failed to follow proper investigative techniques. Further, the decedent’s parents were never provided with the original domestic violence report filled up by Ms. Morris. These focus on the inadequacy “of the training program in relation to the tasks the particular officers must perform.” City of Canton, supra, 489 U.S. at 390.

Qualified immunity of the police officers can be raised against 1983 claims. In the instant case, the officers were required to follow the procedure set out in Florida State Statutes 741.29(2) with regard to domestic violence calls. But, they changed the title of the call from ‘domestic’ to ‘disturbance’ and avoided the statutory requirement. Thus, plaintiffs may be able to successfully argue that the officials’ “conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009).

Misleading reports to conceal civil rights violations.

18 U.S.C. § 1519 penalize a person “who alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document … with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States …”

The 11th Circuit Court has held that “[a] person of ordinary intelligence would understand a police report to be a ‘record’ or ‘document,’ and would also read the language ‘any matter within the jurisdiction of [a] department … of the United States …’” United States v. Hunt, 526 F.3d 739, 743 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 1519). Further, “[n]othing suggests the document mentioned in § 1519 must be already existing at the time the false entry was made.” Id., 526 F.3d at 744.

In the instant case, the police officers Bazell and Tskiri concealed the original domestic violence report filled out by Ms. Morris and they made out another false report concerning the incident. In less than 2 months after his dereliction of duty and writing false reports on the Morris case, Officer Bazell was given an official letter of reprimand for not utilizing proper police procedures during a death investigation that had occurred a day earlier.  That reprimand also confirms that Bazell has a history of writing false reports.  Thus, the “city policymakers [were] on actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights” as set out in Connick v. Thompson, 131 S. Ct. 1350, 1360, 179 L. Ed. 2d 417 (2011). Therefore, the police department may be deemed deliberately indifferent to the civil rights of Ms. Morris.

CONCLUSION

In the instant case, a claim under § 1983 will be plausible if the Plaintiffs are able to prove that the police officers who failed to report and record the domestic violence call of Ms. Morris showed deliberate indifference to Ms. Morris. Similarly, the investigating officers failed to utilize proper investigative techniques. This reflects the inadequate training provided by the department to its staff. However, in order to succeed in a §1983 claim, the Plaintiffs are required to outweigh the robust defense of qualified immunity available to the officers, which courts have historically taken as extremely broad. It is a very high burden for civil rights plaintiffs generally. The Plaintiffs need to prove that the Defendants’ conduct violated the clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of Ms. Morris (deceased) and her parents.