A recent news report revealed several Rankin County, Mississippi Sheriff’s deputies tased and tortured two innocent men. I’ll share my thoughts on this matter and how a similar case might be resolved in Pennsylvania.
On January 24, 2023, the sheriff’s department in Rankin, Mississippi, got information that suggested two Black men were living in a home with a white woman in the county. Various officers went to the house intending to assault and batter the two men at the house. The sheriffs turned off their body-cams and evaded the security cameras at the property. The sheriffs entered the house and assaulted the two men by tasing, beating, and humiliating them. The sheriffs then falsely charged the men with crimes. Later, the malfeasance of the Sheriffs was uncovered. The sheriffs have since been indicted in federal court and arrested and charged in state court.
The question is whether the two men can recover money damages in a civil rights lawsuit under 42 USC 1983. The issue is that – because the sheriffs have been criminally charged, the municipality may not indemnify. This means the government may not pay for any verdict against them. In Pennsylvania, there is no statutory duty to indemnify, but in New York, there is a statutory duty to indemnify. I am unsure of the answer in Mississippi, but for this article, let’s guess there is no statutory duty to indemnify. How does the plaintiff recover?
The plaintiffs can bring a Monell claim under Monell v. Department of Soc. Svcs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Plaintiffs must show that the municipality failed to train or supervise the officers. In this case, supervision is the issue. If any of the sheriff’s deputies have prior excessive force cases against them, they will all be admissible for purposes of proving Monell liability.
Additionally, the Plaintiff can certainly argue a de facto custom or policy, meaning the officers had a historical method of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. This could include evidence of the officers doing the following:
- Turning off their body cameras
- Evading surveillance equipment
- Making sure no damage was done to the plaintiffs’ faces so their mug shots from the false arrest would be clean
According to caselaw, “When a suit against a municipality is based on § 1983, the municipality can only be liable when the alleged constitutional transgression implements or executes a policy, regulation or decision officially adopted by the governing body or informally adopted by custom.” Beck v. City of Pittsburg, 89 F.3d 966, 971 (3d Cir. 1996). In the case of Rankin County, Mississippi, obviously, there exists a custom or policy regarding the officers all acting in concert, racial motivation, torture, tasing, keeping the faces of the plaintiffs clean, false charges, humiliation, etc.
Based on this, if the case were tried in Pennsylvania, the plaintiffs would likely be able to prove their claim. However, because of the indemnity issue, getting paid might be another matter altogether.