Your Constitutional Right To Dignity

Every day my office receives calls from folks who have been abused by people in positions of authority. Most of these people are angry enough to sue. We try to listen and determine what to do with their grievances. In most cases, there is little than can be done. Like it or not, there really is no constitutional right to dignity.

This is a harsh assessment of things. But it is true. What's more, the federal courts, where constitutional litigation gets its fullest hearing, are rapidly, and by design, becoming inaccessible to we the people. Most callers are sent away discouraged by our assessment of what justice can deliver.

Consider the following case: A man falls outside his home. Neighbors call 911 as the man stumbles back into his house. Police arrive. The man suffers a physical disability, and had left the house without a cane. He and his wife are embarrassed that the police arrive. The officer responding is imperious in demeanor, ordering the angry wife to step aside. Things escalate. The wife is arrested for interfering with a police officer; agitated and upset by the tension his home, the already frail man, who suffers psychiatric disabilities as well, collapses in panic. He is removed from the home by ambulance and is later held, against his will, for observation in a local hospital.

This entire episode might not have happened at all if the police officers responding to the home reacted with decency and consideration of the fact that however limited the residents may have been, they were in their own home. They expected to be treated with decency and dignity. The lead officer was overwhelmed that day. He reacted as bullies sometimes do.

Question: Can they bring a successful claim against the officer for unreasonable seizure and unreasonable entry into their home? Sadly, almost certainly not.

The law forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. But the federal courts have created so many doctrines and exceptions to the warrant requirement the police are increasingly free to do as they think fit in ever broader areas of life. Thus, in this case, officers responded to a 911 call by a presumably disinterested neighbor. When they arrived, they saw a man and woman in some distress. The officers mistook the shame and embarrassment for signs of a domestic violence incident. When they tried to investigate, the woman would not cooperate, so she was arrested. The man, fragile of psyche, became enraged and distraught. He was taken into custody because the officers feared he might be a danger to himself. All in a day's work for the police.

But the insult to the dignity of the homeowners is profound. The man is simply crippled and struggles against his limitations. His wife is exhausted caring for his needs. She worries that there is no one there to care for her when she is weary. The couple's exhaustion gives them few resources to meet the inevitable frustrations of the day.

Along comes Officer Attitude, responding, as many officers say, to another "bullshit domestic." He expresses disdain for the couple. If they'd only cooperate with him he could clear this call. He didn't become a police officer to play social worker for the socially infirm. The officer treats these people like garbage, and they sense it. They are mistreated in subtle ways in their own home by a man with a badge and gun.

This fact pattern, to use the language of lawyers, is by no means uncommon. I received an email recently complaining that a police officer behaved like a "racist and sexist." I have no doubt that the officer did. But what leaped to mind as I read this was case law holding that an officer's subjective motives and attitudes are irrelevant in evaluating whether his conduct was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. It is such silly distinctions that clutter the law and make it look ridiculous.

Not long ago, I was in a settlement conference for an appeal I was taking in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, one step from the United States Supreme Court. The settlement officer kept trying to direct my case back to the state courts. I had the sense that the federal courts did not want any longer to be bothered with a constitutional litigation by ordinary people seeking to vindicate their rights. When I shared that sense with a trial court judge weeks later, the judge agreed: The courts are becoming an oasis of privilege and wealth, choking all but the well-heeled with new rules, doctrines and practices all intended to promote justice but having the practical effect of making it all but impossible to try a case. We sat, this judge and I, and bemoaned the loss of a time when trial meant something in the federal courts.

I grieve when a caller reaches me and wants nothing so much a recognition of their worth and dignity as a person. The courts cannot deliver that. The cold logic of the law compresses complex fabric of life into simple skeins. Sadly, the law doesn't recognize the right to be treated with dignity by those in authority. That is what the law calls an aspirational goal, and not an enforceable right.

So what about your constitutional right to dignity? You don't have one. The law has become too sophisticated and supple to recognize this basic need. So much the worse for the law, and for all of us.

About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

Personal Website

Law Firm Website

I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

Pattis Video