As civil rights attorneys, we pay close attention to important cases and rulings that highlight flaws in the legal system. We also pay attention when courts set precedent that shows promise of improvement.
We’ve addressed the potential dangers posed by the Qualified Immunity Doctrine. It’s just one facet of the legal system that government actors can hide behind when they’ve abused their power and used excessive force. Unfortunately, there are others. A recent excessive force case provides a textbook example of another failing in the system that allows government agents to hinder a victim’s pursuit of justice. This case demonstrates one of the challenges civil rights attorneys must face, as well as the kind of creative approach that is needed to penetrate seemingly invincible defenses.
A case of excessive force
In 2010, a New Jersey man, Emil Jutrowski, was pulled over and arrested by two New Jersey state troopers for driving under the influence of alcohol. (He later pled guilty to that charge.) Through a misunderstanding at the time of the arrest, an altercation occurred, and Jutrowski was handcuffed and immobilized face-down on the pavement.
The state troopers were joined by two New Jersey police officers who had observed the scuffle and stopped to offer assistance. Soon after, one of the four law enforcement officers kicked Jutrowski in the head, fracturing his eye socket. Jutrowski did not see which of the officers had kicked him and later could not conclusively identify the assailant. All four officers, in their incident reports and testimonies, admitted that Jutrowski had been kicked while apprehended—yet, none would admit to doing so, nor would they identify the officer who had.
A creative legal approach by civil rights attorneys
Jutrowski sued all four law enforcement officers for excessive force, but a federal judge dismissed the case because the victim was essentially asking the court (and as a result, a jury) to guess which individual defendant should be held liable. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed.
But the case is not over, thanks to Jutrowski’s perceptive and persistent counsel. Jutrowski has alleged conspiracy on the part of the four officers involved in the incident; claiming that they were acting in concert to deprive him of his constitutional right of access to the courts to pursue his claim for damages. The federal appeals court ruled that Jutrowski could pursue this avenue of redress.
We commend the attorneys in this case for going beyond the obvious and for finding a creative way to secure justice for their client. In our own pursuit of justice for our clients, we understand that approach and can relate to that commitment. We hope Jutrowski and his attorneys ultimately prevail in this case. That would be an important outcome for future excessive force victims and the civil rights attorneys who represent them.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of excessive force or another rights abuse, contact the civil rights attorneys at Cooper & Elliott.
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The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.