I wrote last week about the shooting death of Axel, an 18-month-old Yellow labrador, in Charles City County, Virginia.
One response to my suggestion of the possibility of civil liability for the shooter under the federal civil rights law (§ 1983) in combination with the Fourth Amendment has been for some to ask: Why has nothing been done before? And one response to that question has been that there is a “good ol’ boy” network in Charles City County that is protecting an errant animal control officer. That suggestion, in turn, raises another question about civil liability. Is it possible to hold the county or some other officials liable for the alleged Fourth Amendment violation involved in killing Axel (and possibly other animals)?
The short answer is that it is possible to hold supervisory officials and a local governmental body liable, but it is very difficult to do because the legal standard is very stringent. I’ve included below a summary of relevant law from a recent Supreme Court decision. I recognize that it can make for tough reading for one not accustomed to legalese. The important point to note is that liability under § 1983 depends on one’s own actions.
Here are some relevant questions for the legal analysis, questions that show the kind of facts that would need to be developed to support a claim of county liability: Was Axel’s shooting pursuant to official policy? Much depends on the facts, but presumably other potential defendants would try to portray the shooter as a rogue officer. Was the county deliberately indifferent to a pattern of constitutional violations? A similar question is relevant when considering the potential liability of supervisory officials: Was there continued inaction in the face of documented widespread abuses?
Here is an excerpt from the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Connick v. Thompson:
A municipality or other local government may be liable under [§ 1983] if the governmental body itself “subjects” a person to a deprivation of rights or “causes” a person “to be subjected” to such deprivation. See Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). But, under § 1983, local governments are responsible only for “their own illegal acts.” Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 479, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 89 L.Ed.2d 452 (1986) (citing Monell,436 U.S., at 665-683, 98 S.Ct. 2018). They are not vicariously liable under § 1983 for their employees’ actions. See id., at 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018; Canton, 489 U.S., at 392, 109 S.Ct. 1197; Board of Comm’rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 137 L.Ed.2d 626 (1997) (collecting cases).
Plaintiffs who seek to impose liability on local governments under § 1983 must prove that “action pursuant to official municipal policy” caused their injury. Monell, 436 U.S., at 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018; see id., at 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018. Official municipal policy includes the decisions of a government’s lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law. See ibid.; Pembaur, supra, at 480-481, 106 S.Ct. 1292; Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 167-168, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). These are “action[s] for which the municipality is actually responsible.” Pembaur, supra, at 479-480, 106 S.Ct. 1292.
In limited circumstances, a local government’s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of an official government policy for purposes of § 1983. A municipality’s culpability for a deprivation of rights is at its most tenuous where a claim turns on a failure to train. See Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 822-823, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 85 L.Ed.2d 791 (1985) (plurality opinion) (“[A] `policy’ of `inadequate training'” is “far more nebulous, and a good deal further removed from the constitutional violation, than was the policy in Monell“). To satisfy the statute, a municipality’s failure to train its employees in a relevant respect must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.” Canton,489 U.S., at 388, 109 S.Ct. 1197. Only then “can such a shortcoming 1360*1360 be properly thought of as a city `policy or custom’ that is actionable under § 1983.” Id.,at 389, 109 S.Ct. 1197.
“`[D]eliberate indifference’ is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Bryan Cty., 520 U.S., at 410, 117 S.Ct. 1382. Thus, when city policymakers are on actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights, the city may be deemed deliberately indifferent if the policymakers choose to retain that program. Id., at 407,117 S.Ct. 1382. The city’s “policy of inaction” in light of notice that its program will cause constitutional violations “is the functional equivalent of a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” Canton, 489 U.S., at 395, 109 S.Ct. 1197 (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). A less stringent standard of fault for a failure-to-train claim “would result in de facto respondeat superior liability on municipalities . . . .” Id., at 392, 109 S.Ct. 1197; see also Pembaur, supra, at 483,106 S.Ct. 1292 (opinion of Brennan, J.) (“[M]unicipal liability under § 1983 attaches where—and only where—a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by [the relevant] officials. . .”).