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Friday, July 11, 2008

Some Advice For Those Looking For Justice

The Vice of Injustice and Virtue of Justice
frescoes at the Arena Chapel in Padua by Giotto

Ever since I started this site I've received letters from people who have had their rights violated or have been through similar or worse abuse than I was put through. So I try to help them find the resources they need to find justice even when I don't write about their cases, (which happens a lot actually). So, in the course of all this, I found myself giving the same pieces of advice over and over again... So I decided to make a list.

First, I am not a lawyer, please keep this in mind. The following advice is based on my experiences and my experiences helping others prepare to contact lawyers in regards to their own case. The following tips are merely “common sense” recommendations of things you should consider before attempting to contact a lawyer about your case. This site does provide a list of legal experts in the field of civil rights law but has no affiliation with any of the professionals or organizations in those listings and does not represent them in any way. We do encourage you to think about the following pieces of advice before using that list to contact a lawyer in regards to your own situation.

With that out of the way... Let's get started.

Let's Be Frank:

So, you believe your civil rights have been violated… now you want justice and so you’ve started to look for a lawyer to consider your case in that pursuit. Now, maybe your friends told you that lawyers love these kinds of cases or that the ACLU will definitely be interested in helping you because they’re all about civil rights lawsuits, or maybe someone told you that the city is frightened of lawsuits and will write you a check right away at the mere mention of legal action… Well, let’s dispel some of those myths right off the bat.

1. Lawyers Love To Sue The Government:

First, it is incredibly difficult to win a civil rights lawsuit against the government. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to even get such cases to trial because the government, and their employees, has so many immunities to prosecution and civil action that it’s very rare that such suits ever make it beyond the initial stages of legal action. What’s worse is that government employees have no such barriers to sue you and your lawyer if your lawsuit fails, so lawyers tend to be VERY cautious about what cases they’ll take on.

This doesn’t mean that your case isn’t legitimate or that what you say happened did or did not happen as you say it did, but that lawyers need to consider how difficult it would be to PROVE what you allege really did happen in the face of all the various ways the government can cover up evidence and change reports to favor their position. This is why it’s discouraged for victims of police brutality to file official complaints with the department because such complaints are used to warn the department of possible legal action which gives them a head start in preparing a defense against your potential case.

It’s not that a lawyer might not care about how badly you were wronged or hurt when your rights were violated, it’s just that most lawyers are in this to make a living by getting a cut of winning lawsuits so taking on high risk suits isn’t appealing to them… and even the ones who care about how badly you got hurt aren’t willing to risk their home in a countersuit if the evidence in your case isn’t strong enough.

2. The ACLU Will Help!

Next, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, only takes on very special cases that would, if won, change the laws or make a case like yours very visible in the press in order to highlight civil liberties issues. So, it is incredibly rare that the ACLU takes on any case of police brutality or detainee abuse… so if you know your type of case isn’t unusual or has been done before, don’t bother, they probably won’t be interested. Sure, if you tried everyone else first and it’s your last resort, go for it… otherwise, it’s not your best chance regardless of what you’ve heard from your friends.

3. The Government Will Pay You To Keep It Quiet!

Next is the myth that the city is quick to make settlement offers to people they think they’ve wronged. Again, this rarely happens and, in fact, the city of Seattle is well known for its “scorched earth” defense against civil suits and they do fight tooth and nail against any civil rights actions. The city doesn't care if it makes the news because, frankly, there have been so many stories of abuses that they figure the public is too tired of them to care anymore. Now, of course, the city does prefer to settle rather than risk losing a suit, but they’ve only lost one suit in the last 25 years, so even when they do settle the settlement amounts are VERY small when compared to other cities because of their fierce defense tactics and the use of SLAPP suits, (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, these are suits designed to punish people for making allegations of abuse by suing them when they fail in their legal actions or complaint attempts), to dissuade lawyers from filing such lawsuits. Sometimes the city will issue “nuisance payments” to people who threaten legal action, but these are VERY rare and are very small, the largest I’ve heard of is $5,000.

That Advice:

Now that you might be able to see how difficult it is to even get a lawyer interested in your case, let alone make it to trial, let’s focus on what you need to think about in order to improve your chances for at least getting your story heard by a lawyer and taken seriously. Of course, all this advice stems from the assumption that you will tell your lawyer the complete and utter truth, because even worse than a lawyers telling you they aren't interested is if a lawyer takes your case and it comes out that you lied and you get your pants sued off as a result!

1. Remember that lawyers are in this to make money. Just like you work to get paid, so do lawyers, so when you present a case you need to SELL it to them. How do you do this? Well, there are a few steps involved with this:

a. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!!! Document it quickly, as soon as it happens. Document every little detail about what happened, who saw what, when what happened to whom… even document what color that puppy on the corner was the day after it happened… Document every little thing because you’ll never know what detail that you forgot might be important to remember later.

b. Go over everything you documented and use it to start making your detailed case.

c. Do a little research to see what laws might have been violated or exactly how your civil rights were violated. You’ll need to tell the lawyer how you were LEGALLY wronged, not just ethically or morally wronged.

d. Carefully calculate how much your injuries or the loss of your civil rights has cost you and those who were involved with your case. You need to be ready to itemize your harms to the lawyer and give him an idea of how much damage was caused. This includes medical bills, legal bills, lost wages, loan repayments, and even the harms done to your family while you suffered as well. Come in with a real list of damages and a good estimate of what those damages cost in real terms before you even start calling lawyers.

e. Prepare your case carefully! Again, you’re not going to get far by just sending a bunch of documents and transcripts of what happened. You need to make a concise sales pitch that quickly explains the meat of the problem. This should be a way to explain the situation in a concise and efficient manner so that you could tell it to someone in the time it takes to ride an elevator. This “elevator pitch” is only to get your foot in the door; to get a lawyer interested enough to hear you out, not to explain all the nitty-gritty and tiny details of your case.

f. You also need to be ready to present your case in a way that is easy to understand and covers all the bases and possible flaws that might exist. While people like us might argue on occasion, lawyers argue for a living and make a living by finding flaws they can exploit in a case. So you have to spend quite a bit of time going over your case and considering what kinds of arguments someone might come up with to say your case isn’t going to work and be ready to tell them why it would. Be prepared to defend yourself, be prepared to answer questions of your integrity… If you went through a criminal trial, think of each lawyer call as a potential retrial… Sometimes it can be that hard to get a lawyer to listen and they will question your side of things as well.

g. As part of making your case easy to understand, it’s also important to make sure what you are trying to communicate is legible and articulate. Write down what happened, all your arguments, and everything else and then present it to your family or friends before you contact a lawyer. Make sure that people can understand your case, what you believe was wrong about what happened and what harms were done and how that was the fault of those you believe violated your rights. A lawyer won’t return your calls or agree to help you if they can’t figure out why you want their help.

2. After you’ve prepared your sales pitch, your full presentation, have done your homework to make sure your case has some legal standing, and carefully considered what the case is worth, then you’re ready to start calling. But, who do you call or write? Well, again, remember that it is much more difficult to get a lawyer interested in taking on your case than you could possibly imagine. So be prepared to call or write each and every lawyer that you can find. Sure, it is very emotionally traumatic to tell your story over and over again and face a brutal questioning by a lawyer over what happened to you… But you have to be ready to do this over and over and over again… odds are you’ll have to. Odds are even more in favor of you doing so and still not ever getting your case heard.

3. Be persistent. Keep trying, try and try again, try until your eyes bleed and you’re so frustrated you just want to scream! Then scream your guts out and try again! Keep trying until the statute of limitation runs out on you… Because it really is that hard to find a lawyer that will take your case unless the abuse you suffered was caught on camera and aired on the television, (…and even then it can be hard to find a lawyer that will take your case).

4. Be prepared for rejection. I bet you could see this coming, right? Everything I’ve said so far should have made it clear that the odds are against you ever getting a lawyer to take your case, let alone that case being successful if someone does take it. The laws of this state and city are such to make it nearly impossible to win a case against the government, and this is by design. It’s not that anyone thinks you haven’t been wronged; odds are that you were because there are few consequences for those who violate your rights exactly because it’s so hard to sue for such violations.

Some lawyers told me that they hear HUNDREDS of stories of abuse, some worse than the ones you’ve heard in the media, and they can’t take the cases because they would be so hard to prove, even if they were so compelling that you could tell that person was clearly wronged. That’s the nature of the law in this country, it’s unbalanced against the defendant in criminal trials and unbalanced against the victim in trials against the government… remember, government made the laws so those laws will favor the government. Sure, it’s wrong and it encourages more abuses… but it is the way it is for now. It’s best that you know this up front and be prepared to have to live with what was done to you.

It's also important not to be mad at the lawyers who turned you down, they aren't the ones that hurt you or violated your rights. Their hands are tied by the same system that allowed you to be abused and there isn't much they can do about it. I know it's hard not to see them as participating in the injustice against you by not helping you right it, it was hard for me too... but in the end it's not their fault, it just is what it is. All we can do is try to change the system to make it more just for everyone.

In the end, if you’re case doesn’t make it anywhere… you’re not alone. So many people have been wronged by their own government throughout history that, well, it’s been done since time in memorial. Heck, it’s the reason why this country was formed, because a government wronged the people. If it helps, it happened to me as well, it’s why I’m giving you this advice today. So, in the end, still try to make something positive out of what happened in whatever way you can, and try to live with it as best you can. Because you’re not alone, and there are people that care even if it seems like those you tried to get help from didn’t.

I sincerely hope this helps you find justice where so many others have failed, and if it doesn't I hope it better prepares you for the very real possibility that you will never have justice, like so many others before you. In the end, may all of our efforts and suffering bring about change so that others may not have to endure what we have, regardless of whether any of us have justice for ourselves or not.

I also wish you the very best of luck... Let us hope you succeed where most have failed before you.

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