Accelerated Civil Rights Settlements in the Shadow of Section 1983
The families of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott have obtained multimillion dollar settlements from the cities in which their family members lost their lives. This Article identifies and labels these settlements as a legal response unique to high-profile police-involved deaths: accelerated civil rights settlement. It defines accelerated civil rights settlement as a resolution strategy that uses the threat of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 litigation rather than litigation itself to compensate police-involved shooting victims’ family members. This Article explains how accelerated civil rights settlement involves no complaint or case—nothing is filed. Also, the goal of accelerated civil rights settlement is to obtain settlement by focusing on one incident as opposed to a city’s practices or customs. It may not effect widespread social change. But the strategy’s aim is pure: it seeks only compensation. To that end, it is successful, and has allowed some victims’ families to avoid the toll prolonged litigation exacts. Accelerated civil rights settlement stands in sharp contrast to the protracted and painful Section 1983 litigation undertaken by Michael Brown’s parents. Trial in that case was set for 2018, three years after filing. Discovery was brutal, requiring production of Brown’s medical records from age ten onward. Accelerated civil rights settlement is an innovative alternative that shields well-known victims’ families from the ordeal of federal litigation.
Accelerated civil rights settlement relies on Section 1983, but in a new way that differs from its previous uses. Still, this Article concludes that just as accelerated civil rights settlement represents brilliant strategy, its reliance on Section 1983 is no less meaningful than previous applications. The paper recounts Section 1983’s history as a malleable statutory tool. It ties Section 1983’s current role to its past incarnations, including its Reconstruction Era origin as a federal law aimed squarely at the Klan. It considers the law’s purpose in 1960s Chicago when it was employed to challenge racist police practices. It looks to how it was relied upon in impact litigation concerning the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo.
Choosing accelerated civil rights settlement can help victims’ families avoid litigation’s worst moments. In the wake of so many failed prosecutions of the officers involved in police shootings and custodial deaths, it may also be the only way in which the law helps to honor lost lives.