Posted On: November 13, 2012 by Stephen Bilkis

Respondent Claims Constitutional Rights Were Violated

Two suits, permitted to proceed as class actions, were brought in District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by respondents, individuals and organizations, against petitioners, the Mayor of Philadelphia, the Police Commissioner, and others, alleging a pervasive pattern of illegal and unconstitutional police mistreatment of minority citizens in particular and Philadelphia residents in general. A New York Criminal Lawyer said the petitioners were charged with misconduct ranging from express authorization or encouragement of the mistreatment to failure to act in such a way as to avoid recurrence.

The principal antagonists involved in one case were two police officer, not named as parties, who were found to have violated complainants' constitutional rights in three of eight incidents as to which the District Court made detailed factual findings and as to which a five-day suspension had resulted in one incident and no disciplinary action in another. In the other case, in only two of 28 incidents did the District Court conclude that the police conduct amounted to a deprivation of a federally secured right; it found no police misconduct in four incidents; in another, departmental policy was subsequently changed; and, though the court made no comment on the degree of misconduct occurring in the remainder, there were arguably 16 police violations of citizens' constitutional rights in the year involved.

A Bronx Criminal Lawyer said that, the District Court found, that the evidence did not establish the existence of any policy on the part of petitioners to violate the constitutional rights of respondent classes but found evidence of departmental discouragement of complaints and a tendency to minimize the consequences of police misconduct. The court found that only a small percentage of policemen commit violations of the rights of Philadelphia residents generally but that such violations could not be dismissed as rare or isolated. Petitioners were directed to draft for the court's approval "a comprehensive program for dealing adequately with civilian complaints" to be formulated in accordance with the court's "guidelines" containing detailed suggestions for revising the police manuals and procedural rules for dealing with citizens and for changing procedures for handling complaints. On petitioners' appeal the Court of Appeals affirmed.
The issue in this case is whether petitioners committed an asserted pervasive pattern of illegal and unconstitutional mistreatment against minority citizens and Philadelphia residents in general.

The Court in deciding the case said, that it must first of all entertain serious doubts whether on the facts as found there was made out the requisite Art. III or controversy between the individually named respondents and petitioners. In O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 94 S.Ct. 669, 38 L.Ed.2d 674 (1974), the individual respondents, plaintiffs in the District Court, alleged that petitioners, a county magistrate and judge, had embarked on a continuing, intentional practice of racially discriminatory bond setting, sentencing, and assessing of jury fees. No specific instances involving the individual respondents were set forth in the prayer for injunctive relief against the judicial officers. And even though respondents' counsel at oral argument had stated that some of the named respondents had in fact "suffered from the alleged unconstitutional practices," the Court concluded that "past exposure to illegal conduct does not in itself show a present case or controversy regarding injunctive relief, however, if unaccompanied by any continuing, present adverse effects. The Court further recognized that while "past wrongs are evidence bearing on whether there is a real and immediate threat of repeated injury", the attempt to anticipate under what circumstances the respondents there would be made to appear in the future before petitioners "takes us into the area of speculation and conjecture. These observations apply here with even more force, for the individual respondents' claim to "real and immediate" injury rests not upon what the named petitioners might do to them in the future such as set a bond on the basis of race but upon what one of a small, unnamed minority of policemen might do to them in the future because of that unknown policeman's perception of departmental disciplinary procedures. This hypothesis is even more attenuated than those allegations of future injury found insufficient in O'Shea to warrant invocation of federal jurisdiction. Thus, insofar as the individual respondents were concerned, the Court thinks that they lacked the requisite "personal stake in the outcome i. e., the order overhauling police disciplinary procedures.

That conclusion alone might appear to end the matter, for O'Shea also noted that "if none of the named plaintiffs establishes the requisite of a case or controversy with the defendants, none may seek relief on behalf of himself or any other member of the class" which they purport to represent. But, unlike O'Shea, this case did not arise on the pleadings. The District Court, having certified the plaintiff classes, bridged the gap between the facts shown at trial and the class wide relief sought with an unprecedented theory of § 1983 liability. It held that the classes' § 1983 actions for equitable relief against petitioners were made out on a showing of an "unacceptably high" number of those incidents of constitutional dimension some 20 in all occurring at large in a city of three million inhabitants, with 7,500 policemen.

Respondents stress that the District Court not only found an "unacceptably high" number of incidents but held, as did the Court of Appeals, that "when a pattern of frequent police violations of rights is shown, the law is clear that injunctive relief may be granted." However, there was no showing that the behavior of the Philadelphia police was different in kind or degree from that which exists elsewhere; indeed, the District Court found "that the problems disclosed by the record are fairly typical of those afflicting police departments in major urban areas." Thus, invocation of the word "pattern" in a case where, unlike Hague and Medrano, the defendants are not causally linked to it, is but a distant echo of the findings in those cases.

The theory of liability underlying the District Court's opinion, and urged upon us by respondents, is that even without a showing of direct responsibility for the actions of a small percentage of the police force, petitioners' failure to act in the face of a statistical pattern is indistinguishable from the active conduct enjoined in Hague and Medrano. Respondents posit a constitutional "duty" on the part of petitioners (and a corresponding "right" of the citizens of Philadelphia) to "eliminate" future police misconduct; a "default" of that affirmative duty being shown by the statistical pattern, the District Court is empowered to act in petitioners' stead and take whatever preventive measures are necessary, within its discretion, to secure the "right" at issue. Such reasoning, however, blurs accepted usages and meanings in the English language in a way which would be quite inconsistent with the words Congress chose in § 1983. The Court has never subscribed to these amorphous propositions, and the Court declines to do so now.
Respondents, in their effort to bring themselves within the language of Swann, ignore a critical factual distinction between their case and the desegregation cases decided by this Court. In the latter, segregation imposed by law had been implemented by state authorities for varying periods of time, whereas in the instant case the District Court found that the responsible authorities had played no affirmative part in depriving any members of the two respondent classes of any constitutional rights. Those against whom injunctive relief was directed in cases such as Swann and Brown were not administrators and school board members who had in their employ a small number of individuals, which latter on their own deprived black students of their constitutional rights to a unitary school system. They were administrators and school board members who were found by their own conduct in the administration of the school system to have denied those rights. Here, the District Court found that none of the petitioners had deprived the respondent classes of any rights secured under the Constitution. Under the well-established rule that federal "judicial powers may be exercised only on the basis of a constitutional violation," this case presented no occasion for the District Court to grant equitable relief against petitioners.

Going beyond considerations concerning the existence of a live controversy and threshold statutory liability, the Court must address an additional and novel claim advanced by respondent classes. They assert that given the citizenry's "right" to be protected from unconstitutional exercises of police power, and the "need for protection from such abuses," respondents have a right to mandatory equitable relief in some form when those in supervisory positions do not institute steps to reduce the incidence of unconstitutional police misconduct. The scope of federal equity power, it is proposed, should be extended to the fashioning of prophylactic procedures for a state agency designed to minimize this kind of misconduct on the part of a handful of its employees. However, on the facts of this case, not only is this novel claim quite at odds with the settled rule that in federal equity cases "the nature of the violation determines the scope of the remedy," ibid., but important considerations of federalism are additional factors weighing against it. Where, as here, the exercise of authority by state officials is attacked, federal courts must be constantly mindful of the "special delicacy of the adjustment to be preserved between federal equitable power and State administration of its own law.

Section 1983 by its terms confers authority to grant equitable relief as well as damages, but its words "allow a suit in equity only when that is the proper proceeding for redress, and they refer to existing standards to determine what a proper proceeding is." Even in an action between private individuals, it has long been held that an injunction is "to be used sparingly, and only in a clear and plain case." When a plaintiff seeks to enjoin the activity of a government agency, even within a unitary court system, his case must contend with "the well-established rule that the Government has traditionally been granted the widest latitude in the 'dispatch of its own internal affairs. The District Court's injunctive order here, significantly revising the internal procedures of the Philadelphia police department, was indisputably a sharp limitation on the department's "latitude in the 'dispatch of its own internal affairs.' "

When the frame of reference moves from a unitary court system, governed by the principles just stated, to a system of federal courts representing the Nation, subsisting side by side with 50 state judicial, legislative, and executive branches, appropriate consideration must be given to principles of federalism in determining the availability and scope of equitable relief. So strongly has Congress weighted this factor of federalism in the case of a state criminal proceeding that it has enacted 28 U.S.C. § 2283 to actually deny to the district courts the authority to issue injunctions against such proceedings unless the proceedings come within narrowly specified exceptions. Where an injunction against a criminal proceeding is sought under § 1983, "the principles of equity, comity, and federalism" must nonetheless restrain a federal court.

But even where the prayer for injunctive relief does not seek to enjoin the state criminal proceedings themselves, we have held that the principles of equity nonetheless militate heavily against the grant of an injunction except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Thus, the principles of federalism which play such an important part in governing the relationship between federal courts and state governments, though initially expounded and perhaps entitled to their greatest weight in cases where it was sought to enjoin a criminal prosecution in progress, have not been limited either to that situation or indeed to a criminal proceeding itself. The Court thinks these principles likewise have applicability where injunctive relief is sought, not against the judicial branch of the state government, but against those in charge of an executive branch of an agency of state or local governments such as petitioners here.

Contrary to the District Court's flat pronouncement that a federal court's legal power to "supervise the functioning of the police department is firmly established," it is the foregoing cases and principles that must govern consideration of the type of injunctive relief granted here. When it injected itself by injunctive decree into the internal disciplinary affairs of this state agency, the District Court departed from these precepts.

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals which affirmed the decree of the District Court is reversed.

The constitution must always be upheld, especially in all criminal proceedings. If you feel that your constitutional rights have been violated, seek the advice of a Suffolk Criminal Attorney. Suffolk Assault Attorney at Stephen Bilkis and Associates can help you, whether you have been charged with sex crimes, theft or drug possession. Without the help of a Suffolk Order of Protection Attorney, you will lose your rights.