In his lawsuit against New Haven police, James Van de Velde ’82 alleged that the NHPD violated his civil rights under the U.S. Constitution by continuing to label him as a suspect in the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99.
The lawsuit alleges that police violated Van de Velde’s right to privacy, his right to be free from unconstitutional seizure, his constitutionally protected liberty and property interests, and his right to equal protection of the laws, all under the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Legal experts said Van de Velde may have a tough time winning the case.
Columbia Law School professor Vincent Blasi said a “newsworthiness privilege” might justify the NHPD’s announcement that Van de Velde was a suspect. Blasi said the public has a right to know how a criminal investigation such as the Jovin case is proceeding.
“Police can announce a suspect if their intent is purely informational,” he said.
But while Yale law professor Steven Duke acknowledged the existence of such a privilege afforded to police, he said that it is not by any means absolute. He said if police exercised a reckless disregard for the truth when declaring Van de Velde a suspect, they would not be insulated by the privilege.
“But he will have a hard time proving that the police had no basis for calling him a suspect,” Duke said. “When people sue the police, they usually lose.”
Quinnipiac Law School professor Martin Margulies said the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Paul v. Davis may prevent police from being sued for civil rights violations.
In that case, police placed a picture of a man accused of shoplifting on a flyer along with pictures of other “active shoplifters” and distributed the flyer to area businesses. After the shoplifting charges against the man were dismissed, he brought a civil rights lawsuit against the police, alleging that the publication of the flyer violated his constitutional rights.
The court rejected the claim, holding that an individual’s interest in his reputation does not imply any constitutional liberty or property interest covered by the due process clause in the 14th Amendment.
“Basically, reputation is not among the interests that the 14th Amendment protects,” Margulies said. “If he thinks he has a case, he has to be successful in arguing that police injured more than his status.”