Civil Rights Liability

Citizens have a right in California, and indeed in every state, to freely exercise their Constitutional Rights. For example, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to engage in commerce, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and to be free from unreasonable detentions.

When a Constitutional Right is violated, it can give way to civil rights violations. These are actionable in both California State courts and, sometimes, in Federal courts. The penalties are stiff and drastic!

The Unruh Act

In California, our Unruh Civil Rights Act is set forth in Civil Code section 51. It was first enacted in 1959, and was regularly amended, most recently in 2000. It provides in part:

“All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, or blindness or other physical disability are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

The primary purpose of the Unruh Act is to compel recognition of the equality of all persons in the right to the particular service offered by an organization or entity covered by the act. (See, Curran v. Mount Diablo Council of the Boy Scouts (1983) 147 C.A.3d 712, 733.) The protection afforded by the Act applies to “all persons,” and is not confined to a limited category of protected classes.

As a security officer, you cannot discriminate or act in a way to prevent certain classes of people from enjoying their Constitutionally protected rights. The classes of people protected are those based upon: race, sex, religion, national origin, gender identification and any type of handicap.

Violence is dealt with even more broadly. Where the interference (or even the attempted interference) of the enjoyment of civil rights is done by threats, intimidation, or coercion, the person so interfered with need not be a member of any of the “classes” of persons above.

For example, at a shopping mall, a person might be arrested for trying to speak out against a public policy (e.g., a war or other political action). That person could be a perfectly healthy white heterosexual male in his twenties who was threatened or physically removed from the premises while being placed under private person’s arrest by the security officer who was ordered to do so by the shopping mall management. That person has a good cause of action against both the mall management company and the security officer and his company.

The Unruh Act applies, essentially, to “all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” The following are illustrations of businesses held subject to the Act: real estate offices (must provide housing regardless of race, gender, etc.), shopping centers, financing agencies, medical offices, multi-unit apartment complexes, banks, and even country clubs.

Be aware that a single remark by a security officer to a person trying to use a business establishment could give rise to liability. For example, using any type of racial epithet, or a derogatory word aimed at a homosexual in the course of carrying out your duty, would trigger a presumption that the officer was acting to discriminate. As such, the Unruh Act would be invoked