Yes. If a person is assaulted by law enforcement during a lawful protest, they can not only file a section 1983 lawsuit against the individual officers, but they may also be able to bring a suit against the local government running the police force.
Injuries inflicted by the police are sadly not uncommon during group demonstrations, and they were especially frequent during the nationwide protests that occurred following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. As a result of this, lawsuits have been filed against the governments in multiple cities, several of which have already led to multi-million-dollar payouts for the victims.
In March of this year, a jury ordered the city of Denver, Colorado to pay $14 million to a group of protestors who were pepper-sprayed and shot at with rubber bullets and lead. Earlier that same month, the city of Austin, Texas reached a fourth settlement agreement in a series of cases brought by protesters who were injured by bean-bag rounds, bringing the city’s total payout so far to $13 million. At the end of last year, Columbus, Ohio settled several cases for $5.75 million. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city settled for $2.4 million with a man who lost an eye to a police projectile during the demonstrations. The city of Santa Rosa, California paid $2.3 million for three such lawsuits during 2021.
Similar cases are still pending in cities across the country, and many more could yet be filed. The New York Times identified 100 cities where tear gas was deployed against protesters during the summer of 2020, and the use of potentially devastating rubber bullets and beanbag rounds was also widespread.
The different ways to file a lawsuit against the government
In general, state governments cannot be sued without their own permission because they have sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. That federal protection does not extend to county and city governments, but many of the states have their own laws that grant their localities some degree of immunity in their state courts. Since most lawsuits involving personal injuries cannot be filed in federal court, this often leaves people without a way to go after local governments for their recovery.
A case involving an assault by the police, especially during a protest, is different, however. An excessive use of force by law enforcement violates a person’s rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to be free from unreasonable seizures. When such force is used during a social or political demonstration it can also violate the First Amendment by preventing or chilling free speech and assembly. Since federal constitutional rights have been violated, these cases can therefore be filed in federal courts, where cities and counties have no immunity.
A skilled attorney is needed to draft a federal complaint that clearly and comprehensively lays out the case to the court. In addition to being the first step in preparing the case for a trial, a good complaint also lays the foundation for successful settlement negotiations with the local government. Media releases and effective comparisons to other cases that, like the one in Denver above, ended in major judgments to the victims are also important negotiating tools.
How we can help
Our team of constitutional lawyers have the knowledge and experience needed to work towards the best outcome at every stage of these cases. We have successfully represented victims of police misconduct in federal civil rights cases in the past, and we understand the complicated procedural rules involved in this type of litigation.
For more information about how our firm can help you or someone you know get compensation for a protest injury, contact us today.
Kate is a criminal defense lawyer with an impressive record of “not guilty” verdicts and dismissals in serious criminal cases.