By the time a victim of police brutality reaches the point of hiring a civil rights lawyer, evidence has often been lost forever. Evidence which may have helped that victim prove their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case. Often, if just a few steps had been taken by the victim, their family, or their criminal defense attorney, crucial evidence can be preserved. Below, are a few steps a victim or their family can take to ensure crucial evidence is preserved:
- Take pictures of the scene or any injuries you may have. If your injuries change over time continue to photograph them.
- Write down everything you remember about what happened when you were attacked. Include the names of any officers, witnesses and their contact information, or anyone you know that knows something about anyone involved in the incident. The officers will have their written version, so have yours too. This includes anything you can remember about the specifics of the attack. This includes small details like where you were hit, by who, how many times you were hit in specific places, and other small details. Give these notes to your criminal defense attorney to assist them with your defense. Also, keep the notes for any subsequent civil rights lawsuit.
- File an internal affairs complaint. Some agencies call this a professional standards complaint instead of an internal affairs complaint. You should not expect a favorable result from this investigation, but it will always help to have the documentation from any internal affairs investigation later in a civil rights case. Crucial documents and statements can be obtained by the agency conducting the professional standards investigation, which may be useful later. However, if you are going through current criminal proceedings related to the incident of police violence, you need to consult with your criminal defense attorney before doing this as your attorney may have reasons for telling you to hold off on filing a complaint.
- Send a letter to the law enforcement agency involved telling them they are to “preserve for later litigation” all documents related to your incident, give them your full name, the location and date of the incident in the letter, and the officers’ names, if you know them. The letter should tell them they are to preserve any 9-1-1 calls, dispatch or radio traffic, any GPS location data for any officer involved or their vehicles, any mobile terminal data for any officer involved, any CAD reports, NCIC/FCIC data, any local warrant search data, and any audio or video recordings, including body cameras, in-car cameras, belt mics, interrogation videos, and jail video camera footage. If you are involved in a criminal case related to the excessive force incident, demand your criminal defense attorney request this information in your criminal case and demand they send the preservation letter. If your attorney does not do it, send the letter yourself. If there is one most important thing you can do for yourself or your loved one, this letter is it.
- Take depositions in the criminal case. Tell your criminal defense attorney to take depositions in the case. The officers involved in the incident should be deposed to get their story in testimony as soon as is reasonable in any related criminal proceeding. Prior sworn testimony is worth its weight in gold and prevents an officer’s story from changing to fit a civil rights case.
- Contact a civil rights attorney. If a person has been killed or suffered a catastrophic injury because of police brutality, it is helpful to have a civil rights attorney involved soon after the incident. An attorney who specializes in this area can help advise the family on steps to take to help preserve evidence and any civil rights claims related to the tragedy and they may bring resources to bear to help a criminal defense attorney.
- Make sure the attorney you are hiring to handle a civil rights claim is experienced in taking excessive force cases. Ask the attorney about their demonstrated success in settlements, at trials, and on appeals. If they don’t go to trial or handle appeals, you should ask serious questions about whether the attorney is a civil rights attorney.
- If a loved one has been killed by police violence, get an independent autopsy. The state has their own interests at stake and while we would like to believe a medical examiner is independent from the police, often they are not. That is why it is wise to have an independent autopsy done before your loved one has been cremated or buried.
- Finally, be aware that if you are the victim of excessive force, that if there are criminal charges related to the incident that any plea you make may have a negative effect on your potential civil rights case. In some circumstances a plea, even of no contest, can end any future civil rights suit you may have.
Civil rights cases involving police and excessive force are difficult. Having all the evidence you can get is crucial to leveraging your chances of success.