Civil Rights and Police Brutality

 

Just because somebody is charged with a crime does not mean they are guilty.

Law enforcement officers are only allowed to use that amount of force necessary to the specific situation.  Unfortunately a lot of very nasty things happen to detainees behind closed doors and out of sight of the public.  When police or jailers cross the line, they violate the federal and state constitutions which forbid the taking of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

This year the Oklahoma Supreme Court decided that the Oklahoma constitution provides these rights independent of the federal constitution.  In the past, claims based on state law alone were limited by the Oklahoma Tort Claims Act to $175,000.00.  Civil rights claims had to be brought in federal court, where you must prove a “pattern or practice” of violations and personal involvement of a policy making official in order to recover.  In the Bosh case, our Supreme Court wrote that a county or city is liable for police brutality, even if the policy making official was not aware of and did not contribute to the misconduct.

In December, 2012, my friend Aletia Timmons and I obtained the first and only jury verdict personally against Sheriff John Whetsel for mismanagement of the Oklahoma County jail which contributed to our client being beaten by his employees.

The Oklahoma County jail has been a horrible institution ever since it was built.  A 2007 Justice Department investigation found numerous violations of acceptable prison standards, including vermin in the kitchen, violence among inmates, toilets plugged by towels because inmates used them when they were not provided toilet paper, and brutality by guards towards detainees due in part to inadequate training and staffing of the prison.

In our case, Dionne A. McKinney, a very nice single mom with three kids in high school and college got picked up for driving while intoxicated.  When Dionne exercised her constitutional right to remain silent, female detention  officers dragged her into a closed cell, beat her head against the wall, kicked her repeatedly, and then left her lying naked on the floor for hours while they taunted her over the intercom.  Lawyers for the County and the Sheriff denied that it happened, and essentially said it was our client’s fault because she “chose to drive while intoxicated.”

A Oklahoma County jury decided otherwise, and awarded damages to our client including a finding that the Sheriff had acted maliciously in the way he mismanaged the jail.

Unfortunately, it’s all too true.  A prisoner has a right to adequate food, medical care, and housing; and to be free from brutality no matter what crime he or she is charged with or convicted of.

I have the luxury of being able to choose who I want to represent.  I doubt that I would take the civil rights case of a convicted child molester or rapist no matter how severely they were injured in jail, just because I personally can’t stand molester’s or rapists.  On the other hand, we have way too many people in our prisons who just took a wrong step with drugs or alcohol, and got imprisoned instead of getting some help like addiction treatment or drug court.

Oklahoma prisons are overcrowded and under-funded.  State employees including correctional officers are leaving and finding other jobs in droves because they haven’t had a raise now in six years.  It is the prisoners who suffer as a result.

When we take a case involving brutality or failure to provide medical care, we investigate those issues and look at the reasons and causes behind them.  In Dionne’s case, we had a former jail employee who testified she heard Dionne screaming while they beat her, and described other acts of violence which she witnessed in the receiving area of the county jail.

Being in prison is not supposed to be a pleasant experience; but it doesn’t mean you should cross through the gates of hell either.

If you have been the victim of police brutality, or had your civil rights violated, contact me today for a free initial case evaluation.

 

— Gregory H. Haubrich

Attorney at Law

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