I recently read a July 19, 2011 decision by United State District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson in Maria Broadnax's civil lawsuit against the Borough of South Plainfield and patrol officer Ryan Mote. At issue was the legality of Mote sticking his fingers in the pocket of Broadnax's jeans during a December 11, 2008 traffic stop for driving a car with tinted windows on Route 22. Broadnax had claimed that Mote violated her Fourth Amendment rights by momentarily sticking his fingers, up to his knuckles, in the pocket of her tight bluejeans before she withdrew from the officer causing his fingers to slip back out. In October 2011, a few months after North Plainfield lost its motion for summary judgment, it settled the case by paying Broadnax and her lawyer $5,000. The opinion and settlement are on-line here.
In deciding the summary judgment motion, the court drew a distinction between an officer patting down the exterior of someone's clothing and actually sticking his hand in the person's pocket. Exterior pat-downs, which are less intrusive, are sometimes needed to ensure that the officer is not confronting an armed person. But, as Judge Wolfson observed, "it is unlikely that an officer could reasonably suspect that a weapon was hidden in a pocket in a pair of tight jeans." Thus, Mote's failure to first ascertain, either visually or by way of an exterior pat-down, a bulge or protrusion in Broadnax's pocket that suggested the presence of a weapon, transformed the entry of his fingers into Broadnax's pocket to a Fourth Amendment violation.
I suspect that North Plainfield settled not because it was worried that Broadnax would be able to prove extensive damages--all she apparently suffered was the indignity of having her Fourth Amendment rights violated. My suspicion is that North Plainfield made a business decision to settle in order to avoid the high legal costs that a trial of this matter would have incurred.
If Ms. Broadnax's constitutional rights were violated, I can't blame her for seeking vindication from the courts. After all, that's exactly what courts are supposed to do. The problem, both in this case and more generally, is that the costs of litigation almost always force police departments to settle lawsuits regardless of the legal merits of the plaintiffs' claims or the seriousness of injuries suffered.
This signals to some attorneys that they don't really need to "win" cases in order to make money. Rather, they need only to have enough contested facts in the record to survive the police department's summary judgment or dismissal motion. Thereafter, the high cost of trial pretty much always drives the case to settlement which results in both the plaintiffs and the lawyers receiving a sum, perhaps a small one, from the police.
As undesirable as this is, the alternatives (e.g. "losers pay" statutes, restricting access to the courts, etc.) would be worse. Yet, there ought to be better and more efficient ways to adjudicate the claims of citizens who claim that the police violated their rights.