Former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was charged with 36 counts of sexually assaulting 13 African-American females between December 2013 and June 2014, while serving as an Oklahoma City Police Officer. On December 10, 2015, Holtzclaw was convicted of 18 counts, including four counts of first-degree rape. Of the 13 victims, Holtzclaw was convicted of sexual offenses involving 8 of the victims. It is quite possible that Holtzclaw will spend the rest of his life in jail. However, for these 13 victims, it is also clear that their Civil Rights have been violated by Holtzclaw and, possibly, by his supervising officers and/or the Oklahoma City Police Department.
These 13 victims, and any other victims of Holtzclaw, would have a Civil Rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. Section 1983 provides a private cause of action to anyone whose rights, secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, were violated by a person acting under color of state law. These women’s’ rights were clearly violated. One possible right that would have been violated would be their substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Due process protections have been provided “to matters relating to marriage, family, procreation, and the right to bodily integrity.” Clearly, a police officer sexually assaulting someone would violate their right to bodily integrity. Williams v. Berney, 519 F.3d 1216 (10th Cir. 2008).
Likewise, Holtzclaw would clearly have been acting under color of state law. Based on the allegations that have been made public, Holtzclaw picked these women up, while on duty, and sexually assaulted them. Because he exercised power “possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because [he] is clothed with the authority of state law,” he would be said to have been acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 49 (1988). While he was committing these crimes he was acting in his capacity as a police officer and with the authority provided to him by state law. As a result, this is one of the clearest examples of someone acting under “color of state law.”
Further, there may even be a claim against his supervising officers or against the City of Oklahoma City. However, these are much more difficult. The victims would have to show that their rights were violated by virtue of the supervising officials “own conduct.” Dodds v. Richardson, 614 F.3d 1185, 1197 (10th Cir. 2010). This is a difficult burden, but if the victims can show that the supervising officers set in motion a series of events that they knew or reasonably should have known would cause Holtzclaw (or other officers) to violate the rights of the victims, then they could also be held personally liable.
Similarly, if the victims can show that there was a policy or custom of the City of Oklahoma City that caused their rights to be violated, the City could be held responsible for Holtzclaw’s actions. However, this is a very difficult burden, as the victims would be required to demonstrate and identify a specific deficiency in the policies and/or procedures that was obvious and closely related to their injuries.
Finally, even though Holtzclaw was only convicted of sexual offenses relating to 8 of the 13 victims, the other 5 victims would absolutely have a civil rights claim against him. This is because the required standards of proof are different in a criminal case and a civil case. In a criminal case, each allegation against Holtzclaw had to be proven beyond a preponderance of a doubt. This is the highest burden of proof in our legal system. However, in a civil case, which a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations against Holtzclaw would be, the burden of proof is only beyond a preponderance of the evidence-often referred to as more probable than not. This burden is much lower. Because this burden is lower, these women would still have a civil rights claim against Holtzclaw. Ultimately, not only has Holtzclaw committed multiple crimes for which he will be punished, but he has also violated the Civil Rights of these women and they are entitled to bringing a claim against him, personally, for these violations.