Court Rules For Local Governments

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: In a decision that could make it more difficult for individuals to sue local governments over civil rights claims, a sharply divided Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling finding an Oklahoma county liable for the abusive behavior of one of its officers. The 5 to 4 decision involved a case brought by Jill Brown, who claimed she was the victim of excessive force from Reserve Sheriff's Deputy Stacy Burns. Burns was hired even though he had a long record of misdemeanor convictions. Pointing to a 1989 Supreme Court decision that local governments can be forced to pay damages when its "deliberate indifference" lets inadequately trained employees violate a person's rights, lawyers argued that the hiring of Burns constitutes such indifference. But the court ruled that isolated hiring decisions are not actions of deliberate indifference by a county. The decision could have a huge impact on local government: Between 1993 and 1995, New York City alone had to pay $18 million to people filing civil rights lawsuits over the conduct of police officers and prison guards, a number that could sharply decline after this ruling.