Police Misconduct and Civil Rights
Police officers generally have broad powers to carry out their duties. The Constitution and other laws place limits on how far police can go to enforce the law. These civil rights protect people from police misconduct.
As illustrated by the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles and the strangulation of arrestee George Floyd in Minneapolis, police officers sometimes go too far.
When this happens, the victims of the misconduct, or their surviving family members, may have recourse through federal and state laws.
A primary purpose of the nation's civil rights laws is to protect citizens from abuses by the government, including police misconduct.
Civil rights laws allow attorney fees and compensatory and punitive damages as incentives for injured parties to enforce their rights.
Overcoming Qualified Immunity
Being stopped and questioned by law enforcement officers about a crime is an unsettling experience for almost anyone. But as long as an officer performs their job correctly, there is no violation of a suspect's rights.
Police officers are immune from lawsuits for the performance of their jobs unless they engage in willful, unreasonable conduct. Mere negligence, or failing to exercise due care, is not enough to create liability. But conduct like racial profiling or police abuse can lead to liability.
So, qualified immunity means that in the typical police-suspect interaction, the suspect cannot sue the police, local government employees, or a law enforcement agency. Civil rights remedies come into play for willful police conduct that violates a person's constitutional rights.
Civil Rights Laws and Police Misconduct
A statute known as 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the primary civil rights law victims of police misconduct rely upon. This law is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The law was intended to curb oppressive conduct by government and private people in vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Section 1983 makes it unlawful for anyone acting under the authority of state law to deprive another person of their rights under the Constitution or federal law.
The most common claims brought against police officers are:
- False arrest (or false imprisonment)
- Malicious prosecution
- Police brutality arising from the use of excessive force or unreasonable use of deadly force
People can file claims of police misconduct in state court or federal court, depending on the specific nature of the claim.
The U.S. Department of Justice also has the power to bring lawsuits against police departments for alleged misconduct.
The claim most often asserted against police is false arrest. To bring this type of claim, you argue that police violated your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure.
Suppose an officer has probable cause to believe you committed a crime. Your arrest is reasonable, and there's no Fourth Amendment violation.
Police officers can arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence. Some states also allow warrantless arrests for misdemeanor domestic assaults not committed in the officer's presence.
Sometimes, the information the arresting officer relies on later is false. The officer is still not liable if they believed the information was accurate during the arrest.
To prevail on a false arrest claim, you must show that the arresting officer lacked probable cause. That means facts enough to cause a reasonable person to believe you committed a crime.
A malicious prosecution claim asserts that an officer wrongly deprived a victim of the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty.
To win this type of claim, the victim must show four things:
- The defendant police officer began a criminal proceeding
- The proceeding ended in the victim's favor (meaning there was no conviction)
- There was no probable cause
- The proceeding was brought with malice toward the victim
As with false arrest, this claim will fail if the officer has probable cause to start criminal proceedings.
Excessive force claims receive the most publicity. This might be because the results of excessive force seem the most outrageous, involving serious injury or death.
Whether an officer's use of force was reasonable depends on the surrounding facts and circumstances. If the amount of force used by an officer was reasonable, it doesn't matter that the officer's intentions were bad.
The reverse is also true. If an officer had good intentions but used unreasonable force, a court will not dismiss the excessive force claim.
Failure to Intervene
Officers must protect people from constitutional violations by fellow officers.
An officer who witnesses a fellow officer violating someone's constitutional rights may be liable to the victim for failing to intervene.
The Qualified Immunity Defense
Defense attorneys representing a police officer for any of the above claims will raise a defense of qualified immunity. This defense exists to prevent the fear of legal prosecution from stopping a police officer from enforcing the law.
A qualified immunity defense would defeat a claim against an officer if the officer's conduct did not violate an established constitutional or statutory right.
The specific acts the officer prevented a person from engaging in must be legally protected. There is otherwise no civil rights violation.
Winning your Case
To win a civil rights claim based on police misconduct, you must prove that:
- Police actions exceeded reasonable bounds
- Someone infringed on your constitutional rights
- Some injury or damage resulted, such as wrongful death by police, resulted
Claims against police departments can be expensive because you must have evidence to prove misconduct.
This evidence includes:
- Statements of law enforcement officials
- Statements of witnesses
- Various other documentation, including evidence of prior citizen complaints
The evidence supporting your claim is critical in a police misconduct suit.
Take photographs of any injuries or damage caused by the police, and set aside clothing or other objects torn or stained with blood from the incident. Get the names and addresses or telephone numbers of any witnesses to the incident.
Also, write down exactly what happened as soon as possible so you remember important details.
In a criminal case, you must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard is lower in a civil suit alleging a violation of your human rights. Only a preponderance of the evidence is required.
Assert Your Rights Against Police Misconduct
Civil rights claims are an essential part of our legal system. They give a balance between the duty of law enforcement to uphold the laws and the rights of people to be free from police misconduct.
Cases against police officers are complex. Even if you believe the police have mistreated you and caused severe injury, officers may be immune from a civil lawsuit or criminal charges.
Contact a Civil Rights Attorney right away to get legal advice.
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