Brief Fact Summary. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that Yang (Defendant) was not liable for violating 42 U.S.C.S. Section:1983. Plaintiff appealed, alleging that the Defendant’s failure to intervene in his beating by a fellow police officer, thus depriving him of fundamental rights under the Fourth Amendment, incorporated to the states in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. One who is given a badge of authority as a police officer may not ignore the duty imposed by his office and fail to stop other officers who summarily punish a third person in his presence or otherwise within his knowledge. This responsibility to intervene applies equally to supervisory and non-supervisory officers. An officer who is present and fails to intervene to prevent other law enforcement officers from infringing the constitutional rights of citizens is liable under Section 1983, if that officer had reason to know: (1) that excessive force was being used; (2) that a citizen has been unjustifiably arrested; or (3) that any constitutional violation has been committed by a law enforcement official; and the officer had a realistic opportunity to intervene to prevent the harm from occurring.
To prevent Officer Brown from leaving, Plaintiff held onto the driver’s side door of the squad car to keep it open. However, Officer Brown drove anyway, with the driver’s side door ajar and Plaintiff hanging onto the car. Officer Brown drove fast and recklessly attempting to throw Plaintiff off of the car. Officer Brown also repeatedly struck Plaintiff in the ribs with his left elbow. Plaintiff maintains that he was unable to let go of the car without being run over. Defendant sat in the passenger seat, throughout. He did not say anything or in any way attempt to intervene. The squad car traveled, with Plaintiff hanging on, more than two full city blocks until two men on the sidewalk saw what was happening and ran out to the street to stop the police car. Plaintiff let go when the car stopped. Officer Brown then got out of the car and punched Plaintiff in the face, knocking him to the ground. When Plaintiff’s brother, who had run after the squad car, arrived at the scene, Officer Brown knocked him to the ground.
Throughout these events, Defendant did not call the sergeant or attempt to stop Officer Brown in any way. However, as the Yang brothers lay in the street, Defendant got out of the passenger seat of the squad car, drew his gun, pointed it at the brothers and shouted obscenities at them. The Yang’s froze. Officers Hardin and Brown got back in the police car and drove away. Yang pressed criminal charges against both officers. Officer Brown entered a plea and was convicted of official misconduct. Defendant was convicted at a bench trial of three felonies: theft, official misconduct and aggravated assault. Plaintiff also filed an action under Section 1983, with supplemental state law claims of common law false imprisonment, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery. Both Officers Hardin and Brown defaulted. The district court found against Officer Brown and ordered damages for medical bills, physical injuries, lost income, emotional and psychological injuries, and punitive damages. The court also awarded attorney’s fees against Officer Brown. The district court concluded that, as a matter of law, Defendant was not liable for violating Section 1983, nor for the state common law claims. Plaintiff appealed.
Issue. Did the officer’s failure to intervene deprived him of his liberty rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourth Amendment and his Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure.
Held. The court reversed the judgment that held that Defendant did not violate Plaintiff’s civil rights by failing to intervene in a police beating by another officer. The court ruled that Defendant’s omission constituted a civil rights violation since he had a duty to prevent the other officer from infringing on Plaintiff’s constitutional rights and he had a realistic opportunity to intervene to prevent the harm from occurring.
Discussion. Liability under 42 U.S.C.S. Section: 1983 requires proof of two essential elements: that the conduct complained of (1) was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) deprived a person of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The statue essentially secured fundamental liberty interests, and as such is directed at state actors. In Yang, the Seventh Circuit defines some basic parameters of that protection, i.e., the degree of duty owed by a peace officer when another officer restrains a citizen’s liberty by means of physical force or color of authority. In making its determination, the court considered whether the officer in question was required to intervene and whether he had sufficient opportunity to do so. The court answered both questions in the affirm.