The End of Police Accountability

Not to be alarmist, but 21 Republican members of Congress have introduced identical bills in the House and Senate that would end important civil rights protections and dramatically change the landscape of this area of the law. With Republicans controlling all branches of the federal government, this destructive bill has a very strong chance of becoming law. The bill would effectively eliminate people’s ability to sue the police under federal law to hold them accountable when officers shoot people for no reason, brutalize suspects, or coerce confessions.

Limiting Lawsuits – First, the bill would eliminate the right to sue for any damages except for “out-of-pocket” expenses for any federal civil rights violation when the violation is “related to” conduct by the injured person that “more likely than not” constituted a felony or a crime of violence. This would prevent most meaningful federal lawsuits opposing police brutality, coercion, or unwarranted shootings because if the police officers could link their misconduct to their victim’s alleged criminal activity, then there would be almost no damages. For example, if the police were to decide to just start shooting drug dealers, the only potential monetary damages for their federal civil rights violations would be the cost of the hospital bills and funeral expenses of their victims. If the police were to torture a confession from a suspect who likely committed the crime, there would be no monetary damages available at all for that violation. In many places, resisting arrest is a felony, so if the police were to beat someone senseless who they say resisted them, there would be no federal liability available except for reimbursement for the hospital bills. These examples are not exaggerations – check out the legislation: Senate version here; identical House version here.

Attorneys’ Fees – Additionally, the bill would eliminate important payment procedures used to fund federal litigation aimed at police accountability. When lawyers bring federal civil rights lawsuits challenging police misconduct, current law establishes a way for the lawyers to get paid. If the civil rights case is successful, federal law 42 U.S.C. § 1988 provides a mechanism for courts to order that the offenders pay the attorneys’ fees for the lawyers who brought the suit. This is really important because most of the time, the people whose rights are being violated by the police are poor and could never afford to hire a lawyer. This funding mechanism, therefore, ensures the public good of having lawyers willing and able to combat abusive police tactics. But the bill would eliminate this funding provision. Under the proposed law, if the police intentionally gunned down a drug dealer, the only federal damages that could be sued for would be funeral expenses and the lawyer would not get paid for even that effort. Virtually no lawyer could take on that case, allowing for the wrongful deadly use of force to go unchallenged.

The proposed law is mischaracterized as the Back the Blue Act of 2017. In reality, it should be called Protecting the Bad Police Act. The international organization Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees warning against the bill. The rest of the world is paying attention to this fundamental attack on our constitutional protections – we need to be paying attention too. This law will only make us all more vulnerable to police misconduct and will further deteriorate the relationship between the police and the communities that they are supposed to protect and serve. Don’t let this law pass under the radar. Call your congressional representatives and ask that they stand against this effort to protect oppression.

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