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Legal Authority of Off-Duty Cops

Police officer badge and handcuffs
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

As many police officers will tell you, you don't just stop being a cop once you clock out. And when many officers clock out of their official police jobs, they clock in to other work, like security for sporting events, schools, and even oil pipelines. And their legal authority can get a little blurry when police are off-duty, whether they are on-duty for another gig or not.

And in the wake of some highly publicized shootings by off-duty police officers, many people are wondering whether cops can still carry guns, pull you over, or arrest you while they are off-duty. Here's a look.

Off-Duty Authority

"Individuals employed as police officers typically carry their police powers 24 hours a day in their jurisdiction, whether they're on the job or not," according to a recent ThinkProgress report. "That includes the power to arrest, use force, and the power to shoot." This is especially true if officers are working a second private security job. And while most police departments require approval for outside work, some act as job brokers, linking willing officers up with private firms.

As the St. Louis Police Department made explicitly clear following a 2014 shooting:

"To clarify, secondary employment allows officers to work security in uniform and carry their department-issued weapons. The officer, while not on duty for the Police Department, still has the same responsibilities and power to affect arrest and the officer operates in the capacity as a St. Louis Police Officer. St. Louis Police Officers work secondary for securities companies, business establishments, sporting events, etc."

And noted Orange County criminal attorney John Barnett told the Orange County Register that police officers "follow the same rules for gun use whether they are on duty or off." However, some gun possession, use, or shootings could violate departmental policies that require officers to attempt de-escalate confrontations with citizens before brandishing or using their weapons.

Off-Duty Liability

While cops retain much of their legal authority while off-duty, some critics claim they are not held to the same legal standards when working a second job or off-the-clock entirely. Private security companies are not bound by the same regulations, constitutional protections, or civil liberties concerns as public police departments. And, while some cities will accept civil liability for off-duty police behavior, it's an open question whether an officer will be civilly or criminally liable for acts committed when they're not on the clock.

But the Ninth Circuit, however, recently ruled that off-duty police officers working private security jobs are not entitled to the same qualified immunity as they would be if they were working on behalf of the government. So, in some cases, legal protections for officers may be limited to their on-duty conduct.

If you've had an interaction with an off-duty cop and want to know your rights, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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