Can You Sue For Police Brutality Or Misconduct?

May 7, 2019

Can You Sue For Police Brutality Or Misconduct?

Each year, around 14,000 people are murdered, and around 1,200 of those people are murdered by police officers. This number is even higher for police brutality or misconduct. Police officers represent about 38% of the population. This means you are 22.7 times more likely to be murdered by a police officer than anyone else. Police officers can be sued in either state or federal court. State courts have concurrent jurisdiction over questions of federal law. You can sue a person in state court for violating federal law unless there’s an exclusive act of Congress to the contrary.

The most common causes of police officer violations fall under section 1983 of the United States code under the same chapter of federal law. These actions can also bring state-level violations. If a state officer ignores those sections of federal law you can file a complaint with the Department of Justice or to the FBI. Under title 281861 of the United States code, which is an action to make a federal officer do their job, an attorney can file legal actions. This law used to make FBI agents arrest persons who violate civil rights laws or to compel the United States attorney.

Excessive force by the police during an arrest violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A suspect who has been a victim of excessive force may have a viable lawsuit against the arresting officers and even the municipality that employs them.

A “tort” is a legal term for a civil wrong (as opposed to a criminal wrong) that resulted in some kind of injury to the plaintiff. Many civil claims against police officers involve the torts of assault and battery. Occasionally, these claims involve the tort of negligence.

Most lawsuits against police officers involve the Civil Rights Act of 1871. (42 U.S.C. § 1983.) Section A 1983 claim alleges that the defendant, “under color of law,” violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. The use of excessive force constitutes a valid claim under section 1983 because it violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against “unreasonable seizures.”

Police brutality

Police officers are generally allowed to use whatever force is necessary to make an arrest or defend themselves. In most jurisdictions, when a jury has to decide whether an officer used more force than was necessary to make an arrest, the judge instructs it to consider what a reasonable person with the officer’s knowledge would have deemed necessary under the circumstances. So, an arresting officer is allowed to use more force to arrest a resisting suspect than if the suspect were compliant, and may use deadly force if threatened with death or great bodily harm. The amount of force an officer may lawfully use against a fleeing suspect depends on whether the person appears to have committed either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Whether an officer’s use of force was excessive is so dependent on the facts that appellate courts often defer to juries’ conclusions in that regard. Many states treat excessive force cases somewhat differently than typical lawsuits. In some jurisdictions, there is a presumption that the officer acted with the necessary level of force that the plaintiff must overcome. Additionally, some impose a higher burden of proof than “preponderance of the evidence,” instead requiring the plaintiff to prove a claim of excessive force by “clear and convincing evidence” (a standard higher than “by a preponderance of evidence” but lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt”).

All states agree that the plaintiff being guilty of the crime for which the officer arrested him isn’t a valid defense for the officer. But, by the same token, a plaintiff who can prove innocence is more likely to be able to show that the officer’s use of force wasn’t necessary. Although most jurisdictions have “qualified immunity” statutes, which can relieve public employees of liability for injuries they cause in the course of their duties, many courts (but not all) have held that these statutes don’t apply to claims of excessive force against police officers. But another potential challenge for citizens who want to sue the police and the city or county is governmental immunity: States are immune from suit by private citizens in federal court under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, many states have laws immunizing municipalities from equivalent suits. Ultimately, whether the government has a viable “immunity” claim depends on the facts of the case and the jurisdiction it’s in.

Unidentified Officers – “We did it but you don’t know it”. 

Commonly there are multiple police officers involved in an arrest. Often civil rights complainants name many of these police officers as John Doe defendants. John Doe defendants are generally not cognizable in federal courts. Neither the federal statutes nor the federal rules of civil procedure contain any provision for the use of fictitious parties.  To the contrary, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure requires that the complaint include the names of all parties. Pleadings in which the defendants are not identified by name will not suffice. A person is not a party to a lawsuit until named as a party. References to fictitious parties are therefore considered mere hearsay, the subject of dismissal for failure to state a claim. Getting the name right also implicates jurisdiction over the person.

On this precedent, the court dismissed the Doe defendants for lack of personal jurisdiction. Doe defendants in the other civil rights actions are similarly entitled to dismissal under Rule 12(b)

Misidentified Officers – “We didn’t do it and you can’t prove it”. Just as officers who participated in an arrest are named erroneously as unidentified defendants, officers who did not participate in an arrest are named fallaciously as misidentified defendants. Having never struck, punched or kicked the plaintiff, or even observed anyone doing so, officers are named only in the caption or included with broad, sweeping allegations that the “defendants” used excessive force. Neither identification is sufficient.




Federal Rules Of Civil Procedure: Civil Action For Violation Of Rights: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Civil Conspiracy To Violate Rights: 42 U.S.C. § 1985 Negligent Failure To Prevent Violations Of Civil Rights: 42 U.S.C. § 1986 Criminal Conspiracy To Violate Civil Rights: 18 U.S.C. § 241 Criminal Civil Rights Violations: 18 U.S.C. § 242 Action To Compel Federal Officer: 28 U.S.C. § 1361 Supplemental Jurisdiction: 28 U.S.C. § 1367 Federal Jurisdiction of Civil Cases: 28 U.S.C. § 1391