By Raychel Lean, Daily Business Review
Though video footage of George Floyd’s neck under the knee of a police officer propelled the issue of police brutality to the forefront of public consciousness, many attorneys are still reluctant to take on cases that could help tackle the problem.
That’s according to the South Florida team representing LaToya Ratlieff, who was shot by police with a rubber bullet at a Black Lives Matter protest in Fort Lauderdale and has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit two years on.
Though this case has the potential to result in a significant jury award or settlement, it’s actually the small wins that will create the biggest impact in the long run, according to Michael T. Davis. He’s handling the litigation with his Kuehne Davis Law partner Benedict Kuehne and Stuart Ratzan of Ratzan Weissman & Boldt.
“There are so many civil rights cases, people who are falsely arrested, people who are maybe arrested lawfully but excessive force is used, and many of their cases go unanswered or without a lawyer because the damages are too low. I think every lawyer should take on a civil rights case and be a part of the movement to vindicate the rights of people,” Davis said.
The majority of police brutality cases don’t offer much in the way of monetary value for litigators, but Davis said that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take them on.
“Take a case,” Davis said. “If lawyers want to make a difference and they want to be part of the solution, when you have that friend who tells you about being stopped for no reason, even if there’s no damages, you take that case, you file for an injunction and you get an injunction against that police officer. And that injunction will make a difference because when that officer does that again he is now violating an injunction. It’s the second time that he violates a civil right, and he’s now going to face harsher consequences.”
‘Lawyers Should Care’
The team’s latest lawsuit points the finger at the city of Fort Lauderdale and nine police officers over their handling of a protest against police brutality, organized in response to Floyd’s murder in 2020
The demonstration descended into chaos when officers began deploying tear gas and
firing rubber bullets, allegedly without warning. Plaintiff Ratlieff was captured on video as
she stumbled away from the gas after being shot above her eye. Her lawsuit said she’d
protested peacefully and held a sign that read, “Stop Killing Us.”
The city of Fort Lauderdale has since apologized to Ratlieff and acknowledged that she did
City Attorney Alan Boileau’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit but did note that,
“On the broader issue, I think it is important for attorneys to understand that use of force
by law enforcement is not synonymous with the term ‘police brutality’ … which I believe is
inaccurate and misleading.”
The case is an example of how attorneys can push for social change through litigation, the
way Ratzan sees it.
“Lawyers should care because this case is one great example of how trial by jury can make
the ultimate difference in the lives of our citizens and in this community, and how trial by
jury can enhance and enforce safety that helps deter this kind of brutality and makes us all
better and all safer,” Ratzan said.
‘We’re Not Trying to Stop Them’
One unusual aspect of the case is that it implicates the city, which is not protected by qualified immunity they way police generally are.
“The question for the city of fort Lauderdale is whether there was a policy or a final
decision maker who decided to use tear gas and rubber bullets,” Davis said.
That means a critical part of the litigation will examine police policies and practices, which
Ratlieff seeks to change.
“The city of fort Lauderdale, like many municipalities, has resisted change and resisted
acknowledging responsibility for this grievous assault on LaToya, and we expect them to
mount a similar challenge,” Keuhne said.
Ratlieff has presented the Fort Lauderdale Police Department with a list of what she
argues are more safe and effective law enforcement practices. The suggestions included:
requiring officers to sit with a mental health professional once a year; stopping the use of
rubber bullets; using non-lethal options such as BolaWrap remote restraint devices for
certain situations; and making successful de-escalation one of the criteria for promotions
within the department.
Her attorneys say nothing has been implemented yet.
“Now there will be some financial consequence to them as, perhaps, an incentive to get some of those other things done,” Ratzan said.
Though the issue of community law enforcement is often viewed as an “us vs. them”
scenario, Kuehne stressed that’s not the goal of the litigation, noting Ratlieff used to serve
on Delray Beach’s police advisory board.
“LaToya is a staunch believer in effective law enforcement and we are trying to help the
city of Fort Lauderdale effectively use its police power,” Kuehne said. “We’re not trying to
stop them. We’re trying to make their use more effective so that the community is fully
supportive of that arm of government.”
Peaceful demonstrations carried special meaning to Ratlieff, according to her attorneys, as
her great aunt was civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer. That, Kuehne said, meant she “was
instilled from those very early days that we, you, people in the United States cannot
remain silent in the face of injustice.”
U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz will preside over the litigation in the Southern District of