from the buy-us-a-halo dept
It's not enough that lawsuit settlements for police misconduct, brutality or officer-involved-deaths come attached to "no admission of wrongdoing" statements. In far too many cases, they also come with stipulations forbidding recipients from making public statements about the lawsuit or its allegations.
When city officials here settle police-misconduct claims, they usually bar the person who alleged mistreatment from speaking publicly about the case. Violating that restriction can result in a settlement being cut in half.The Wall Street Journal points out that Baltimore is somewhat unique in its use of confidentiality agreements in settlement agreements. But it is by no means the only government entity to do so. The mother of Darrien Hunt, who was killed by Utah police officers last year, recently rejected a $900,000 settlement from Saratoga Springs over the inclusion of a gag order.
The city [Baltimore] last year withheld $31,500 of one woman’s $63,000 payment after she posted messages about her case on a newspaper website, for instance.
"To me it was a gag order [that said], 'Here's hush money, don't ever say Darrien's name again,'" Susan Hunt, mother of Darrien, told Utah's KSL news about turning down the $900,000 settlement the city offered in response to her wrongful death lawsuit.If the locality isn't interested in forcing gag orders on settlement recipients, the law enforcement agencies at the center of these lawsuits will sometimes help out by arresting plaintiffs and using pending charges as leverage against further public disclosure.
"My biggest concern is for the truth to be told," Susan said.
Criminal charges are commonly used to thwart the possibility of lawsuits, said attorney Marcus Sidoti, who has handled multiple civil rights lawsuits the city settled in recent years.The Cleveland.com article lists a handful of other cases where lawsuit plaintiffs were arrested and charged with criminal activity after filing brutality complaints. In almost every case, charges were dropped or (in the one felony case) the grand jury did not return an indictment.
For instance, Judi Patrizi was arrested in 2007 and charged with obstructing official business after an officer said she impeded an assault investigation at Bounce Nightclub.
In a report, an officer described Patrizi pointing in his face and swinging her arm away from him -- an account later disproven by video surveillance at the club. The charges were later dropped and Patrizi sued the city saying she was maliciously prosecuted after the unlawful arrest. The city settled her case for $87,000.
In some cases, those who claimed police brutalized or shot them were offered plea deals that would reduce or drop charges against them only if they agreed not to sue the officers or the city -- a move some call unethical.
This sort of thing isn't strictly limited to lawsuits filed over police misconduct. These tactics also used to protect other government employees and officials from public scrutiny.
The Beecher School District [Flint, MI] paid nearly $250,000 to avoid two lawsuits over alleged sexual misconduct by a former public school administrator.Unless allowed to be filed under seal, court documents are, by default, public records. The best way to keep the public from viewing public records is to create as few of them as possible -- hence the quick settlements and the accompanying gag orders. If done swiftly enough, no documents will make their way onto court dockets. Add in a bit more enforced secrecy, and even FOIA requesters won't know what to look for… or if anything even exists.
But no lawsuit was ever filed, so taxpayers did not have easy access to this information because of a state law that allows public bodies to enter into non-disclosure clauses that bar either side from discussing specifics of a case.
Court records are created when a lawsuit is filed and eventually dismissed, which could tip a potential FOIA user off to a settlement.While confidentiality clauses are common to lawsuit settlements between private parties, the use of them in the public sphere is not nearly as acceptable. These agreements force the public to not only pay for the misdeeds of their public servants but shield them from additional scrutiny. Settlements are often offered by government agencies because it guarantees them something they'd can't obtain through a jury trial: the ability to exonerate themselves. It also heads off the chance that they'll have to hand over other incriminating information in response to discovery requests.
However, a keen eye may be needed to realize when a government agency agreed to a settlement with a non-disclosure clause to prevent a lawsuit from ever being filed, such as the situation in Beecher.
Nearly every lawsuit settlement contains clauses indicating that the payout is not an admission of wrongdoing. Government agencies are continually buying "innocence"... using money they've collected from citizens who have little say in how their tax money is spent. Whether it's a confidentiality agreement or a speedy settlement issued in an attempt to head off a lawsuit, the end result is the same: more secrecy, less accountability and the continued diminishing of any deterrent effect these civil suits are supposed to have.