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Right Conduct and Civil Rights - 11/21/12

To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice ~ Magna Carta (1215 A.D.)

The right conduct of city officials and anyone vested with power in the public trust requires not only honesty and the avoidance of bias and conflict of interest in their regular business, but also a positive respect for the legal and constitutional rights of citizens. A government which willfully disregards First Amendment, due process, or other rights of persons is government that is neither just nor ethical. And there can be consequences, whether the actions are from ignorance or with reckless disregard of individual liberties.

Public officials do sometimes violate civil rights, including here in Deerfield Beach. I can think of at least five instances where rights were actually or potentially violated, with deliberation. None of these cases was ever pursued.

One of the reasons cases like this are not pursued is simple economics. Even if a person's rights are restored or vindicated, who pays attorney's fees? The daunting prospect of litigation costs is enough to make it not-worth-it for most people.

What, however, could have happened if one or more of these cases had gone to court?

Consider the case of Lefemine v. Wideman, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 5, 2012. This, in summary, is what the Court held: In a federal suit for violation of civil rights, the offending public officials and police officers may be made to pay plaintiff's attorney's fees, if he prevails.

What makes this decision doubly interesting is that while the facts are different, the plot line bears striking similarity to a case that occurred here in Deerfield Beach in 2004.

A group of beach activists, members of the OSOB, were stopped by BSO officers (apparently at the request of then-city manager, Larry R. Deetjen) from peacefully distributing political materials to people attending the Fourth of July events at the beach a clear violation of First Amendment rights by any test I know of. They were surrounded by deputies clothed in SWAT gear and detained for around three hours until the group's attorney could reach higher authority within the BSO, who, so to speak, called off the dogs. It is not clear, from my interview with members of the detained group, whether they were free to leave or were, in effect, under arrest for some unspecified crime. None of the group attempted to leave.

It is 100 percent certain that if this case had come before a court, the OSOB members would have won, at least in principle.

In Nov. 2005, Steven Lefemine and around 20 members of an anti-abortion group called the Columbia Christians for Life, or CCL, staged a demonstration in Greenwood County, South Carolina, in which they carried graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. A Greenwood County sheriff's officer came by and informed Lefemine that if the signs were not discarded, he would be ticketed for breach of the peace. Lefemine protested that the cop was violating his First Amendment rights, but the officer was not impressed and the threat eventually caused Lefemine to disband the demonstration.

The next year, Lefemine's attorney informed the Greenwood County sheriff, Wideman, that the CCL intended to stage another demonstration. The sheriff responded that "should we observe any protester or demonstrator committing the same act, we will again conduct ourselves in exactly the same manner: order the person(s) to stop or face criminal sanctions." Considering this threat, the CCL called off its planned demonstration in Greenwood County in 2006 and for the next two years.

But in 2008, Lefemine filed suit against Wideman and several Greenwood County police officers under a federal statute which permits civil suits for violation of civil rights. Lefemine sought nominal damages, a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, and payment of attorney's fees by the defendants. The federal judge determined that the defendants had infringed Lefemine's rights and issued a injunction. The district court, however, denied Lefemine's request for attorney's fees; the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed; the U.S. Supreme Court granted writ of certiorari and reversed.

The bottom line is that public officials who violate the civil rights of individuals and even the police officers who carry out the violation do not necessarily escape personal liability to pay the attorney's fees of the plaintiff in a civil rights suit under federal law. This is something that might give local officials pause for thought, on occasion.