The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It’s no secret that, despite the fundamental protections of the Fourth Amendment, the police don’t always respect our rights to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Remember the Department of Justice’s Report on Baltimore, which found that Baltimore’s police “engage in a pattern or practice of making stops, searches, and arrests in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?” How about the Department’s Report on Ferguson, which found that the “FPD Engages in a Pattern of Unconstitutional Stops and Arrests in Violation of the Fourth Amendment?” Did you also know that the city of Philadelphia entered a consent decree related to a class action lawsuit that had alleged a pattern or practice of illegal stops, searches and arrests? And despite these reports and decrees, it seems like things aren’t getting much better.
What many people may not realize though, is that when you are a victim of an unlawful detention or search, you have a cause of action against the police.
42 U.S.C. Section 1983 is a federal statute that was passed during Reconstruction as a means of enforcing federal civil rights against abuses that came under color of law. It was originally even called the “Ku Klux Klan Act” because it was intended to protect blacks against state-sanctioned abuse. (The more things change the more they stay the same.)
When someone is subject to an illegal police search or seizure, their civil rights have been violated and they can sue under Section 1983. It really is that simple.
But what is a lawsuit worth? Under Section 1983 you can sue for damages, and the actual amount is set by a jury depending on the circumstances of a case. The idea is to compensate someone for what it cost them to have their civil rights violated. Because it is traumatic and deeply unfair for someone to be forcibly detained, perhaps even arrested, and have their private spaces subject to a search, even a brief detention and a simple frisk can give rise to damages. If a person has suffered prolonged detention, invasive searches, or a pattern of illegal police conduct, the damages will be greater.
But, does a lawsuit cost a plaintiff anything? The short answer is no. Generally, meritorious civil rights actions result in an award of attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. Section 1988 and I work on contingency fees for these kinds of cases. That means that I take care of the costs, and I only collect a fee if you win.
Illegal searches and seizures offend me. No one deserves to have their freedom curtailed and their privacy invaded without justification. If you have been subject to this type of abuse, call me. I can help.