New weapon for civil rights

The Supreme Court has handed Americans a powerful, new weapon to defend themselves against civil rights abuses at the local level. The court, in essence, has warned city and county governments that they can be held financially accountable in the court for any policies that violate the constitutional rights of their citizens.

This latest in a series of significant civil rights rulings by the Burger court removes one of the major defenses municipalities have used against lawsuits seeking damages for such wide ranging abuses as police brutality, illegal searches, employment discrimination, and restriction of free speech (via unconstitutional parade permit regulations, for instance.) Until now, local governments could avoid damage suits by simply arguing that officials charged with violations were acting in "good faith" in carrying out official policy. Since most public officials enjoy varying degrees of immunity, this left victims of civil rights offenses little opportunity for collecting damages.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court in a major turnaround ruled that local governments did not have absolute immunity from civil rights suits, but the court left open the possibility that they might have limited immunity. This latest ruling, however, makes clear that cities and countries cannot claim even limited immunity.

Civil rights lawyers say the ruling will help thousands of individuals with cases pending against municipalities for such violations. One immediate application may be a case currently before the Supreme Court in which a New Tork woman is seeking damages for having to submit to a "strip search" while in police custody waiting to be arraigned. A lower court ruled the police procedure was unconstitutional but denied damages on the basis of the county's good faith. The appeals court will likely get the case again.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan pinpointed the importance of removing even limited government immunity. He said, "The knowledge that a municipality will be liable for all of its injurious conduct, whether committed in good faith or not, should create an incentive for officials who may harbor doubts about the lawfulness of their intended actions to err on the side of protecting citizens' constitutional rights. . . Furthermore, the threat that damages might be levied against the city may encourage those in a policymaking position to institute internal rules and programs designed to minimize the likelihood of unintentional infringements on constitutional rights."

The sticking point in many damage suits may now be whether or not abuses are the result of official "policy." Nevertheless, the court leaves little doubt that a city or county can be held accountable for its unconstitutional policies. And policymakers from now on may find that it pays to be sensitive to individual liberties.

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