Over the years, the Free Thought Project has run many headlines with the phrase “taxpayers held liable” included in it after cops were caught maiming, raping, kidnapping and killing people. Many of these excessive force, murder, and wrongful arrest lawsuits were brought against police departments because the departments and prosecutors refused to hold the offending officers accountable and lawsuits were the only form of justice the victims could seek.
While no amount of money can ever undo the damage caused by some of these officers, it was at least some form of seeking justice. In Iowa, however, all that is changing after the Iowa Supreme Court just severely limited the amount of financial damages a victim of police crimes can be awarded.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat and the longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history, with four decades in the role, is a friend of bad cops. According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, Millers office has failed — quite possibly deliberately — to convict and cop in the state since 2004. And, in the last 16 years, he’s brought charges against just two cops.
Clearly, Miller has a bias toward police and for decades, abusive cops have enjoyed a sort of immunity under his tenure. Citizens who were abused by police or family members of those killed by police have been forced to seek justice through civil lawsuits, seeking punitive damages. Now, however, thanks to an initiative brought forward by Miller, the Iowa Supreme Court just severely limited the financial damages that can be awarded for injuries and deaths caused by state police officers who are found to have used excessive force.
In a 6-1 decision, the court ruled that punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter future criminal behavior by police, are not available in cases in which officers use excessive force in violation of constitutional rights.
As the Daily Nonpareil reports:
Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for the majority that compensatory damages for victims, including for emotional distress and attorney fees, would still be available and offer “an adequate remedy.”
The court ruled that lawsuits brought by injured individuals and the families of those killed by state police are subject to limits in the Iowa Tort Claims Act, which governs claims against state employees.
The act bars punitive damages, has a two-year statute of limitations and requires litigants to present their claims to the state and wait at least six months before filing suit. Civil rights lawyers say the law can delay and impede justice, while supporters say it protects taxpayers.
The ruling applies to claims against officers of state agencies, including the Iowa State Patrol, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Division of Narcotics Enforcement.
The case stemmed from the death of a suicidal 19-year-old man who was killed by police in 2017. Shane Jensen’s family was suing police for punitive damages after their son was gunned down while armed in 2017 during a mental health crisis.
Attorney General Miller , whose office represents the DNR officer who killed Jensen — and who hasn’t convicted a cop in nearly two decades — was the one who asked the court to find that punitive damages should not be allowed in such case. And the majority of the court sided with him.
Only one judge was able to see the problem with getting rid of punitive damages. Dissenting voice Justice Brent Appel said that punitive damages are important and necessary in excessive force cases because they allow jurors to send “an expression of community outrage and a measure of deterrence” when constitutional violations are proven.
“Brutal beatings or excessive force cases such as Rodney King, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor are not just private matters to be adjusted through the transfer of funds to the victim,” he wrote. “Does the case involve systemic blue on black violence, a mere one-off not likely to be repeated, or a reasonable effort by law enforcement in a difficult situation to protect the public? These questions are very public matters.”