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Police Used Excessive Force Against You?

Video Transcript:

Merrida Coxwell:

42-USC 1983 allows citizens to sue for constitutional deprivations or violations of constitutional rights.

Rob Rosenthal:

Do you know what to do if you're the victim of excessive force from a police officer? Well we're going to try to find out right now because we're going to ask the lawyer on today's episode.

Hi again, everybody, I'm Rob Rosenthal with askthelawyers.com and my guest is Mississippi Attorney Merrida Coxwell, who is not only a personal injury attorney, but also a criminal defense attorney as well. 

I also want to remind you, if you'd like to ask Merrida questions about your specific situation, just head over to askthelawyers.com, click the button up at the top of the page that says “Ask a Lawyer”, and it will walk you right through the very simple process right there. Merrida, good to see you. Thank you for answering our questions today.

Merrida Coxwell:

Good to see you, Rob.

Rob Rosenthal:

Let's just talk about your experience a little bit. I mentioned that you're a personal injury attorney, but you also do criminal defense. Tell us a little bit about your experience with these sorts of cases with police brutality or excessive force.

Merrida Coxwell:

Well, your police brutality cases are civil cases that are brought under a federal statute, which is 42-USC 1983, and people call that civil rights cases. So those are civil cases.

Rob Rosenthal:

Let's follow that a little bit. Why is that a civil rights case? I think most people would probably just think it's a criminal case. Why is it a civil rights case?

Merrida Coxwell:

Well, no, because Congress has made it a civil rights case. We got our law from England; I'll try to make the history lesson very short, but you couldn't really sue the king at common law, and there are still limits on suing governmental agencies and entities. 42-USC 1983 allows citizens to sue for constitutional deprivations or violations of constitutional rights by someone acting under law, so that gives people a right to sue for, in some instances, failure to provide medical treatment while you're in jail, excessive force; there are a lot of constitutional rights that might fall into the statute, but to be frank with you in today's legal system, they would be too expensive probably to bring under this statute. 

Rob Rosenthal:

Wow. It already sounds very complicated. Tell me a little bit about this; have you been handling these kinds of cases for some time now?

Merrida Coxwell:

Yeah, so myself and my partner, Chuck Mullins, a member of Coxwell and Associates, have handled I don't know how many of these cases. Most of the time they’re excessive force cases where police officers seriously injure someone. For example, we sued the City of Jackson when officers killed a young man who was under the influence of drugs and didn't know where he was, and the jury rendered a $2.1 million verdict for the family. We’ve handled cases where police officers broke a minor’s arm, and many accidental shootings. So we've had a lot of these cases. They’re probably the hardest cases a lawyer can take in a personal injury field. When I say stand-alone cases, by that I mean single cases. You have mass tort cases, as you know, that are very difficult, but as an individual case you won't get anything harder than civil rights.

Rob Rosenthal:

Talk about some of the limitations of these cases. I think some people might be surprised to find there's so many limitations. What are some of those in layman's terms?

Merrida Coxwell:

Well, the biggest one is that we have a concept in the law called “vicarious liability”; that means a company can be responsible for the actions of its employees. There is no vicarious liability—a city or county is not automatically liable for the actions of its employees. The lawyer must prove there was a policy or procedure that led to this employee's action or that not having a policy was a policy. In one case, for example, there was no training for officers on how to deal with individuals who were completely out of their mind on drugs, but yet nationally, it's known that you deal with them the same as you deal with a person who is mentally incompetent. So we were able to show that the city had no policy, which was an effective policy. But if an individual thinks just because a police officer injures him, the city is responsible, all I can say is no, no, no. That's not the case.

Rob Rosenthal:

I had no idea about that. That's fascinating. Let me just ask you a couple of questions, since you also are a criminal defense attorney. Let's talk about some generalities. What do you recommend for the person who is pulled over or has an interaction with police. What's your recommendation for how they should handle that situation to come out the best on the other end?

Merrida Coxwell:

You know that's the best question I think you could ask me today, and a lot of people get mad at my answer, but the very best thing you can do is to be polite. You can assert your rights and still be polite and considerate. There really should be no place in this world for anything but that, but the way that most people—and I see this more in misdemeanors than anything else—but the way the person gets himself charged with seven crimes instead of one is they get abusive to the officer. That's like playing in a snake pit. It's just foolish, Rob.

Rob Rosenthal:

It seems like sometimes, Merrida, someone might think their rights are being violated and maybe they are, but they're not going to be able to solve that issue on the side of the highway or somewhere like that. Would your advice be, do what you have to do, be polite, go on, and then contact an attorney after fact and let the attorney handle it?

Merrida Coxwell:

Absolutely. You could say, “I don't agree with what you're saying. I don't think you have the right to search my car. I do not consent.” But if they're going to do it, you cannot battle and enforce your rights while you're on the street. You can not consent; you can say no, but you cannot get in a tussle and you're not going to win a force battle and you shouldn't try with law enforcement officials.

Rob Rosenthal:

That's after the fact. That's when they contact somebody like you that has experience and knows how to handle this.

Merrida Coxwell:

Yeah. We get more of these cases than people calling about excessive force or rudeness than I think is normal, whatever normal is. We seem to get a lot. 

Rob Rosenthal:

Fascinating. Always interesting talking to you, Merrida. I always learn something. Thank you so much for making some time for us.

Merrida Coxwell:

You're welcome.

Rob Rosenthal:

That's going to do it for this episode of Ask the Lawyer. My guest has been Mississippi attorney Merrida Coxwell. 

I want to remind you if you'd like to ask Merrida specific questions about your situation, just head over to askthelawyers.com, click the button at the top of the page that says “Ask a Lawyer”, and we'll walk you through the free and easy process right there.

Thanks for watching. I'm Rob Rosenthal with AskTheLawyers™.

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