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How the Supreme Court enabled police to use deadly chokeholds

When the Supreme Court turns its back on injustice, there are consequences.

Protesters gather in a call for justice for George Floyd, a black man who died after a white policeman pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for several minutes, at Hennepin County Government Plaza on May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

The video is horrific.

George Floyd lies on the ground, facing the back end of a police SUV, as three cops kneel on his body. One of them, Derek Chauvin, has his knee on Floyd’s neck as the helpless man begs for his life.

“I can’t breathe, man. Please understand. Please, man.”

It’s a sadly familiar scene, and quite like one that played out in 1976 after Los Angeles police officers pulled over Adolph Lyons for a broken taillight.

Like Floyd, Lyons was black. The officers met him with guns drawn and ordered him to face the car, spread his legs, and place his hands on top of his head. Not long after Lyons complained that a ring of keys that he held in his hands was causing him pain, one of the officers wrapped his forearm around Lyons’s throat and began to choke him. Lyons passed out. He woke up facedown on the ground, covered in his own urine and feces. The officers released him with a citation for the broken taillight.

Lyons brought a federal lawsuit against the city and officers who assaulted him. But that case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons (1983), did not end well for him. Decades later, the 5-4 decision still stands as one of the greatest obstacles to civil rights lawyers challenging police brutality in cases like George Floyd’s.

Lyons was a case about whether courts can prevent police violence before it happens

Adolph Lyons was not the only man choked by a Los Angeles police officer. Between 1975 and 1980, LAPD officers used chokeholds on at least 975 occasions.

As Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his dissenting opinion, “the city instructs its officers that use of a chokehold does not constitute deadly force.” Nevertheless, “no less than 16 persons have died following the use of a chokehold by an LAPD police officer,” 12 of whom were black men.

According to Justice Marshall, “the evidence submitted to the District Court established that, for many years, it has been the official policy of the city to permit police officers to employ chokeholds in a variety of situations where they face no threat of violence.”

When Lyons sued the city, he wanted more than just a sum of money compensating him for his injuries. He sought an injunction — a formal court order that would have forbidden the LAPD from using chokeholds “except in situations where the proposed victim of said control reasonably appears to be threatening the immediate use of deadly force.”

But the Supreme Court held that Lyons could not obtain such an injunction unless he could show that he was personally likely to be choked by a Los Angeles police officer in the future. “Past exposure to illegal conduct,” Justice Byron White wrote for the Court, does not permit someone to seek an injunction. Rather, “Lyons’ standing to seek the injunction requested depended on whether he was likely to suffer future injury from the use of the chokeholds by police officers.”

It didn’t matter that nearly a thousand other Los Angeles residents were subjected to police chokeholds. To obtain a court order protecting future victims of police violence from being choked, Lyons would have to show that he was likely to be choked by an LAPD officer a second time.

Indeed, White’s opinion went even further than that. To obtain an injunction, White wrote for the Court, Lyons “would have had not only to allege that he would have another encounter with the police, but also to make the incredible assertion either (1) that all police officers in Los Angeles always choke any citizen with whom they happen to have an encounter, whether for the purpose of arrest, issuing a citation, or for questioning, or (2) that the City ordered or authorized police officers to act in such manner.”

As Justice Marshall pointed out in dissent, Lyons made it so difficult to obtain an injunction preventing police misconduct that “if the police adopt a policy of ‘shoot to kill,’ or a policy of shooting 1 out of 10 suspects, the federal courts will be powerless to enjoin its continuation.”

Why injunctions are necessary to stop police violence

Lyons did not foreclose lawsuits against rogue cops altogether. Someone like Adolph Lyons (or, for that matter, George Floyd’s survivors) may still sue cops who violate their constitutional rights, and they may potentially receive monetary damages from those cops.

But those lawsuits would face numerous barriers.

For one thing, cops benefit from a doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” which protects them from having to pay for violating the legal rights of another person, unless the police officer violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” As the Supreme Court explained in Malley v. Briggs (1986), qualified immunity “provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

Even if a civil rights plaintiff overcomes qualified immunity, many jurisdictions have indemnity laws protecting police from civil suits. Under these laws, the government agrees to pay any damages awarded against an officer. Indeed, these indemnity laws are so common that a 2014 study by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz found that “during the study period, governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”

So cops are unlikely to face financial consequences themselves if they violate someone’s civil rights. And, while the jurisdiction that employs them may be forced to pay for their actions, money damages won in civil lawsuits often are not painful enough to inspire policymakers to make lasting changes.

In most lawsuits, the primary purpose of money damages is to compensate the victim for the injury inflicted on them. That may be enough to cover hospital bills, lost wages, and the like, but it’s not always enough of a hit to state or municipal budgets to inspire the government to change its behavior.

In particularly egregious cases, a victim of police violence may also receive punitive damages — extra money awarded to a plaintiff to deter future bad behavior by the defendant. But the Supreme Court is reluctant to allow large punitive damage awards. Indeed, in State Farm v. Campbell (2003), the Court held that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process.” Thus, for every dollar that a plaintiff receives in compensation, they typically may not receive more than $10 in punitive damages.

Which brings us back to injunctions. When a court enjoins a particular defendant, they don’t just order that defendant to cease a particular behavior, they also can enforce that order with criminal sanctions or by imposing escalating fines until the defendant ceases their illegal conduct. A party subject to an injunction, in other words, can be squeezed so hard by court sanctions that they have no choice but to change their behavior.

Consider the case of Eric Garner, who was killed by a New York police officer’s chokehold in 2014. Although the NYPD had a formal policy barring chokeholds, it was frequently unenforced. The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board received 219 chokehold complaints against NYPD officers in just one year.

If one of the victims of those chokeholds had obtained an injunction against the NYPD, then a court could have imposed strict sanctions on the city until police chokeholds ceased. And Eric Garner might be alive today.