14 October 2014

Denver Loses Another Excessive Force Case

A federal jury awarded the surviving family members of Marvin Booker, a homeless African-American preacher who died in the Denver jail, $4.65 million of combined economic, non-economic and punitive damages, plus their lawyers reasonable attorneys' fees and costs which are likely to exceed $1 million.

The City stipulated to liability for all non-punitive damages awarded, to avoid the introduction of similar incidents involving the city at trial, but that procedural trick made no difference in the end.

The City has not determined how the punitive damage awards against individual jail guards will be handled, or whether it will appeal the ruling.

The jury found that Denver jail guards violated Mr. Booker's civil rights by unconstitutionally using excessive force to subdue him in a videotaped incident.

The City has spent many millions of dollars on settlements and jury verdicts in excessive force cases involving its police and sheriff's departments, several involving multiple millions of dollars, and many more cases are in the pipeline.  A judge in a recent civil rights case related to harm to a prisoner in the jail concluded that Denver's attorneys' and internal affairs investigators were engaging in litigation misconduct and called for a federal investigation.

Heads have rolled in the Denver jail's management, and numerous reforms have been proposed.  But, the problem of improper conduct by Denver's police and jail guards remains an unresolved and long standing issue.

The U.S. Constitution does not allow state governments to be sued in federal courts, but municipalities may be sued in federal courts for civil rights violations, so long as the "qualified immunity" defense which makes money damages available for civil rights violations only in cases involving intentional violations of clearly established constitutional rights by particular named individuals acting under color of law.  If the City had not conceded liability for compensatory damages, the Plaintiffs would have had to show that the City had a policy or practice in place that caused the civil rights violation by its guards to take place.

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