Our criminal justice system is premised in part on the idea that if you commit a crime, you pay a price: the fear of spending years in prison and paying back the money you stole should deter you from stealing in the first place. But, of course, this type of deterrence only works if the person who commits the crime is the one who has to pay the price. Imagine if an office worker knew that if he drained the company accounts, the company stockholders would be the ones severely punished for his crime, not him. The system wouldn’t work so well then, would it? In fact, the office worker might feel free to help himself to the company’s funds. Well, that’s sort of how the present system is rigged for cases of police misconduct.
While our country continues to see a steady stream of terrible police misconduct – officers shooting people and lying about the circumstances, intentionally framing innocent people, forcing false confessions, etc. – the system to deter this sort of behavior is broken. Let’s consider what might stop a police officer from just shooting a suspect and then lying about the circumstances in order to claim it was justified (a scenario we’ve seen played out all too often lately). In theory, there’s the risk that the officer might be criminally charged for killing the person. But in reality, among the thousands of fatal police shootings in the ten years between 2005 and April 2015, only 54 officers were criminally charged. Of those, most were promptly cleared or acquitted or received only a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. In many cities, the police are never faulted for shooting fatalities, so the risk of criminal charges for shooting a suspect is virtually zero. Not much deterrence from that. And the odds of being criminally charged for framing a suspect are even lower – such charges are a rarity.
Then, there are police misconduct civil law suits, seeking monetary damages for the lives lost, the abuse suffered, or the wrongful conviction resulting from the police frame-up. At Loevy & Loevy, we have tremendous success in suing the police officers who commit these horrific acts of misconduct, along with the police departments responsible for breeding bad officers. But, despite what are often multi-million dollar resolutions, the individual officers who commit the acts rarely pay any price at all personally. When a court awards damages to the victims of police officers who break the law, with rare exception, neither the officers nor the police departments pay much (if any) of the damages. It almost always falls to the municipality and taxpayers to foot the bill. In fact, 99.98% of the damages are paid by a general municipal budget, rather than by an individual officer or a police department. This frees officers and police departments from the consequences and allows them to violate the law with impunity.
A recent case out of Florida bucks the trend and sends a very different message to unscrupulous cops. Antony Caravella was a mentally challenged 15 year old when two police detectives coerced him into confessing to a brutal rape/murder that he did not commit and then withheld evidence establishing his innocence. Mr. Caravella spent 26 years in prison for this crime before DNA evidence exonerated him and inculpated the victim’s neighbor, who had been a prime suspect and the last person to be seen with her alive. In the civil case against the detectives, a jury awarded Mr. Caravella $7 million, $2.5 million in compensatory damages, and $4.5 million as punitive damages against the officers. Here’s what makes the case exceptional: the courts have upheld that the two officers are individually liable for the whole thing – their savings and pensions can be collected against, to pay the damages awards. Usually, this kind of damages award is paid by the municipality, which really means the tax payers, and the officers suffer no consequence for their outrageous wrongful conduct. But imagine if cops always had to foot at least part of the bill for flagrantly violating the law to ruin or end an innocent life. Making police officers and their departments foot the bill for their misconduct may help curb the above-the-law mentality plaguing law enforcement.