Examples of Canton Claims
It is common for plaintiffs' attorneys who are suing officers over alleged violations of constitutional rights to include a Canton claim. If the jury finds that the officer did indeed violate the standards laid down in some controlling court decision, the employer can also be liable on the Canton claim if the evidence establishes that officers were denied training necessary to prevent the kind of violation that occurred.
In Bordanaro v. McLeod, for example, a federal appeals court found that a Massachusetts city could be held liable under Canton where departmental training "failed to address contemporary law enforcement issues, specifically up-to-date standards governing search and seizure, hot pursuit, and the use of deadly force."
Other federal appellate decisions have affirmed Canton claims for failing to train officers regarding to their due process duties not to suppress evidence favorable to the defense (Walker v. City of New York); or for failure to train on arrest and use-of-force law (Brown v. Bryan County, Oklahoma); or for omitting training on how to handle intoxicated persons. (Kniepp v. Philadelphia)Davis v. Mason County illustrates the principle that the cost of neglecting training can be far higher than the price of providing it. Five sheriff's deputies were sued for using excessive force when making arrests. The four plaintiffs also alleged that the sheriff and the county had been deliberately indifferent to their duty to train. After evidence at trial showed that deputies had not been provided with updated training on the constitutional limits on the use of force, the jury returned verdicts against the officers and the agency.
The judgment against Mason County included $528,000 in compensatory damages, $320,000 in punitive damages against the individual deputies, and $323,560 in attorney's fees and costs. The deliberate indifference of the sheriff's department to the duty to train deputies may have saved some training expense, but it wound up costing the county $1,171,560. On appeal, the full judgment was upheld, the appellate court concluding that "The training that the deputies received was woefully inadequate, if it can be said to have existed at all."
A "Conscious Choice" Not to Train
In discussing the "deliberate indifference" standard in Canton, the Supreme Court said this: "Where a failure to train reflects a deliberate or conscious choice by a municipality, a city can be liable for such a failure under § 1983." In other words, if a sheriff, police chief, or public safety director makes a conscious choice to cut training as a cost-saving step, and if the lack of training then results in an officer violating a person's constitutional rights, the agency head or the municipality may be subject to damages for deliberate indifference to the duty to train, under Canton.
When a budget squeeze does require some measured reduction in training, the prudent officer will seek out legal updates on his or her own, in order to stay abreast of recent developments. And the prudent agency head will try to find cost-effective ways to continue to provide training on constitutional law topics, including new case decisions on search and seizure, interrogation, identification procedures, and disclosure of evidence. Instead of sending officers away to seminars, for example, it may be wiser to bring instructors to the officers. Increased use of video, Internet training, and professional publications can help. POLICE Magazine brings you timely coverage of significant new constitutional decisions in monthly "Point of Law" articles and other features by a variety of experts.
A reflexive decision to start every budget-cutting cycle with a suspension of training may amount to a "deliberate or conscious choice" not to train. Such a step may not be in the agency's or municipality's long-term financial interest. The cost of training is a relative bargain, compared to the price of neglecting it.
Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. He is the author of 11 books, including "Courtroom Survival, The Officer's Guide to Better Testimony."