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Police and Cities Are Using Bankruptcy to Escape Civil Judgments


Victims of police brutality will often seek money damages for their injuries through a civil suit. The lawsuit is often not just against a police department or law enforcement agency, but may, depending on where the incident occurred and the laws of the state or jurisdiction, also include a lawsuit against the offending officers or emergency responders in their individual capacity.

Individual Officer Liability

This is important because in limited cases, a police department may deny that an officer was acting in his or her official capacity. In other words, a department can allege that the officer “went rogue” in such a way that the officer was no longer acting with the consent, knowledge, permission or authority of the officer’s employer. By suing the officer individually, the victim at least has someone to go after for damages in the event that the police department wins on this issue.

The Bankruptcy Problem

But victims who seek and obtain damages from individual officers, whether through a jury verdict or a settlement, often face an unexpected hurdle: bankruptcy. Just like you can file for bankruptcy to get rid of a medical debt, or high credit card bills, anybody can file for bankruptcy to avoid paying a judgment entered against them. That includes police officers trying to get rid of judgments for police misconduct.

In most cases, if you obtain a civil judgment against an officer in his or her individual capacity, the city will pay the judgment—the city is often contractually obligated to satisfy judgments against officers for damages related to police brutality.

But to avoid having to pay the bill, some police departments are asking police officers who have judgments against them to file bankruptcy. Once the officer files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy wipes out the judgment, and thus gets the city off the hook for having to pay the judgment for the officer. Sometimes, the city even pays the officer, or gives the officer some kind of benefit, for filing bankruptcy.

It is not known how often this kind of bankruptcy strategy is used, but Cleveland, Detroit, and San Bernardino, among others, are known to have used the strategy to avoid having to pay civil police brutality judgments.

Political candidates are talking about closing the loophole, as part of larger plans to overhaul the bankruptcy system.

Fighting the Discharge

Victims who face officers trying to file bankruptcy often have a difficult time fighting the bankruptcy, and upholding the validity of the judgment. Some have tried to keep the city on the hook to pay the officer’s judgment even if the judgment is discharged in bankruptcy, but that is a very difficult argument to make.

There is certainly a moral reason to keep police officers from escaping responsibility for filing bankruptcy, but the bankruptcy code does not make discharging debts illegal just because doing so is morally wrong.

Contact the Alabama police misconduct attorneys at Lasseter Law Firm today to discuss getting help if you have been a victim of misconduct or brutality at the hands of law enforcement.


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