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Failing Grade By Legal Nonprofit For Civil Rights Claims In Pine Tree State

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A national legal nonprofit has given Maine a failing grade for the ability of its citizens to sue police officers for breaching civil rights.

Maine is one of eight states that has enacted a statute creating an ability to sue (a cause of action) for a violation of rights. However, this is mired in immunities that limit what actions even get to the point of being decided or settled by a court.

Such immunities have been repeatedly criticized nationally because a federal law that allows civil rights lawsuits against police officers (and on rare occasions the police departments) often has to overcome an incredibly high bar.

In essence, a person who was wronged has to show that the circumstances of their case were clearly established as a constitutional wrong with near identical facts. Maine’s Law Court, the Supreme Judicial Court, simply follows federal precedent for Maine’s own statute – which is clearly a separate law than its federal equivalent.

Even the most egregious police conduct often cannot be litigated, or survive a motion for summary judgment when it is, because there has been no case like it before that has led to a decision that what is alleged was a constitutional violation. Not only that, there is little to no obligation of federal courts to decide on the merit of a claim at all, which means the facts never get adjudicated as a violation of rights and there is no helpful case law for the next litigant who faces exactly the same issue. This ability to close the courthouse doors by immunizing police misconduct is called qualified immunity, or QI. QI was not mentioned in the federal statute that originally opened the courthouse door, but was created by the United States Supreme Court to make it more difficult to succeed in a claim, and over time that door has steadily closed incrementally over time.

The Maine Civil Rights Act creates a right of action for claims of physical force or violence, damage or destruction of property, or trespass – but only people can be sued, not public agencies or the state itself. Courts follow the same impossibly difficult high bar for litigation under Maine’s statute as it does for the federal one, 42 U.S.C §1983.

There was an attempt to end Qualified Immunity for Maine’s statute at the last legislative session. It failed in the legislature. Had it succeeded, it would have put Maine’s citizens in a much better position to get redress for police misconduct in state courts, or using state law, than is possible in federal courts.

There is also no reason why Maine should follow federal precedent for a federal statute. It follows a similar trend with other issues of police misconduct. Maine‘s Law Court has repeatedly said Maine’s Constitution related to searches and seizures - Article 1 Section 5 - offers no greater protections than federal law about the Fourth Amendment in the United States Constitution - effectively making Maine’s constitutional provision redundant. Precedent related to Maine‘s statute (in following federal case law) effectively does the same thing - subcontract interpretation to courts elsewhere.

In a study by the Institute for Justice (IJ), called Fifty Shades of Government Immunity, Maine gets a D+ grade for at least having its own statute that allows people to sue for civil rights violations in limited circumstances, but there is no mechanism to sue under the state’s constitution, and that statute that does exist is restricted by the same mess that exists in federal courts.

In establishing that grade, IJ said it assessed whether the state has a civil rights statute (yes), whether this civil rights statute is limited to certain constitutional violations (yes), whether this statute is burdened by immunity (yes), whether there is a right to sue directly under the constitution (there is not), whether there is a broad tort statute available that can be used to sue for violations of individual rights (there is a statute but it is narrow), whether this tort statute is burdened by immunity (it is).

The state with the highest grade of A- nationally was New Mexico. Only two others got a B-.

Of the New England states, Massachusetts fared best with a C+, New Hampshire a D-, Rhode Island a D+, Connecticut a C, and Vermont a C-.


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