Civil Rights

At O’Brien Law we have handled more successful civil rights cases than any other law firm in Western Pennsylvania.

The Constitution protects rights we often take for granted, such as the right to speak, write and worship freely. It also protects our “life, liberty and property” from the government and ensures that we cannot be arrested without “probable cause.” Over the years, courts have interpreted and reinterpreted the Constitution to the point that civil rights litigation is one of the most complicated areas of U.S. law. At O’Brien Law, we have decades of experience representing victims of government misconduct. If you believe the government has violated your rights, we can help you understand the law and decide what to do next.

 

Areas We Cover

Excessive Force

Any use of force by a law enforcement officer must be “objectively reasonable.” In other words, force is unconstitutional if a reasonable, well-trained officer in the same situation would have known that the force was excessive.

Deadly Force

Law enforcement officers are only allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from death or great bodily harm. An officer’s belief that deadly force is necessary must be be objectively reasonable.

Failure to Intervene

A government employee who witnesses a constitutional violation, such as excessive force, and does not try to stop it may be held responsible for the violation.

Unlawful Search and Seizure

All government searches and seizures must be reasonable. Whether or not a search is reasonable depends on many factors. A home typically may not be searched without a warrant. However, a warrant is not required if there are exigent, or urgent, circumstances or if the owner consents. A car may be searched without a warrant and a person may be stopped and “patted down” based only on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that “criminal activity is afoot.”

Malicious Prosecution

Malicious prosecution occurs when a police officer files false criminal charges for an improper reason. To pursue a malicious prosecution claim, you must have a “favorable termination” of the criminal proceedings (a plea or ARD agreement does not count), there must have been no probable cause for the charges in the first place and you must be able to prove that the officer’s motive was corrupt.

False Arrest/Imprisonment

A false arrest is a seizure of a person without probable cause to believe that he or she has committed a crime. If the person is detained, it may become false imprisonment.

Prisoners do not have full constitutional rights, but they are protected from cruel and unusual punishment. This standard is violated if a prison official knows that an inmate faces a substantial risk of harm and fails to take reasonable steps to address it. This can include the failure to provide necessary medical care. Prisoners retain other constitutional rights as well, such as due process, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equal protection, but these protections are more limited than for the general public.

Students do not “shed their constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate.” They can engage in speech and other constitutionally protected conduct, so long as they do not disrupt the learning environment. The Constitution also protects students’ rights to due process and equal protection of the laws. This means that schools must provide notice and a hearing before expelling a student and may not treat any student differently because of their race or sex.

The government may not pass laws that interfere with our freedom of speech, religion, press or assembly. When a government official punishes a person or group of people for exercising these rights (such as by arresting them, fining them or denying them a government benefit) the official may be liable for retaliation.

Our right to “due process” protects us from governmental interference in our lives.  If the government interferes with our liberty or property, a court will determine whether the particular liberty or property interest is “protected” by the Constitution.  If it is, the government must provide adequate procedures.  What procedures are required depends on how important the liberty or property interest is. At a minimum,  due process must include “notice and an opportunity to be heard.”   Some “fundamental” rights are considered so important that the government cannot interfere with them, even with procedural protections.  These rights are either written into the Constitution (such as freedom of speech) or are “deeply rooted” in American history and tradition (such as the right to privacy).

The Constitution requires the government to treat people equally.  However, in order to make and enforce laws, the government needs to treat people differently. For example, the law treats people over the age of 18 differently from people under the age of 18. Whether a legal distinction violates the Equal Protection clause depends on what group is disadvantaged and the government’s reason for discriminating. Any government action that discriminates against racial minorities must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve a “compelling government interest.”  However, actions that discriminate against women only need to be “substantially related” to an “important government interest.” Most other classifications are not considered “suspect” and must simply be rationally related to a legitimate interest.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Martin Luther King Jr.

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