The police have broad power to enforce our laws. However the Constitution and police misconduct laws place limits on their power. If the police abuse their power, they can face both civil liability and criminal penalties. One kind of police misconduct occurs when an officer violates a person’s constitutional rights. A person whose constitutional rights have been violated by a police officer may be able to file a civil lawsuit seeking money damages.

Police officers can commit misconduct where they are on-duty or off-duty. If the officer is acting, or claiming to act, in their official capacity, then police misconduct can be claimed if they commit a criminal act or violate a person’s constitutional rights. 

Police officers can commit misconduct when they fail to follow proper procedures as designated by the police department for which they work. They might abuse citizens in the course of performing their duties physically or verbally and emotionally. They may use excessive force or ask for bribes. All of these can be the basis for a claim of misconduct. 

Police brutality can arise when an officer uses more force than a situation requires. A police officer should use only the minimum amount of force necessary to handle a person who is being arrested, stop an incident from taking place or protect themselves or others from harm. If an officer uses more than the minimum force necessary, then the officer has used excessive force. For example, an officer who punches a suspect who is handcuffed or not resisting an officer’s commands, the officer would be using excessive force. This conduct could give rise to a claim of police misconduct.

There are a variety of state and federal police misconduct laws that might apply to specific instances of police misconduct. Depending on the nature of the misconduct, remedies for police misconduct might involve filing a complaint with the police department or the office of the district attorney in which the misconduct occurred and/or filing a complaint for damages in state or federal court.

Civil Police Misconduct

A federal law makes it illegal for anyone acting under the authority of the law of any state to deprive a person of their rights under the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

For example, an officer who plants drugs on a person or in their car in order to arrest the person for possession of a controlled substance has deprived the person of their right not to be arrested without probable cause. Additionally, the police officer could be subject to a criminal charge of false arrest. 

If a police officer violates a person’s rights under the Constitution or federal law, the person can file a civil lawsuit seeking damages in court. However, there are many requirements that must be met before a claim of this type can be successful. It is challenging to establish that a right exists or that the person who deprived another person of the right was acting “under color of law”, which is a technical legal term. 

A person seeking relief under federal law for police misconduct should remember that the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides limited immunity to police officers acting in their official capacity with state authority.

A person who believes that the police have deprived them of a Constitutional right should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer to analyze the claimed misconduct and review options.

Criminal Police Misconduct

Police whose actions violate state or federal criminal statutes can be guilty of a crime, even if the officer was acting in their official capacity at the time. 

There are many possible examples of criminal police misconduct, including;

If a police officer is charged with a crime as result of an incident in which a person is the victim, the person may serve as a witness in a criminal trial. However, the person does not recover damages from a criminal trial and is not a party to the legal action. To recover damages, the person needs to file a civil complaint in state or federal court

What to Do If The Police Violate Your Rights

It is important to proceed carefully in claiming that a police officer has violated a person’s rights or engaged in criminal conduct of which a person is the victim.

  • The first step is to file a complaint with the police department or the internal affairs division of the police department where the officer is employed. It is generally a requirement that a person exhaust all administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit; that means seeking a remedy from the agencies involved before turning to the courts;
  • After reporting to the police department, the next step is to report the misconduct to the U.S. Department of Justice or the office of the U.S. Attorney; 
  • After the violations have been reported to the police department or the U.S. Attorney’s office, a person may then proceed to filing a lawsuit in court against the police department and/or their officers.

It is important to remember that in a civil lawsuit it is the claimant who has the burden of proving that a police officer engaged in misconduct.

One issue that arises is whether to file suit in state or federal court. This can be a complex, technical legal question and that is why a person with a claim against the police for misconduct should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.

What Damages Might I Receive From a Police Misconduct Laws?

Damages in a police misconduct lawsuit will vary depending on the severity of the misconduct and the nature of the injuries that a person suffers from such misconduct. The types of damages that one can recover in a police misconduct lawsuit include the following:

  • Compensatory Damages: You will be compensated for such things as property damage, costs of medical care, loss of earnings if the person has missed work, and potential future loss of financial earnings;
  • Aggravated Damages: Aggravated damages would be awarded in the exceptional case where the police conduct was especially egregious; aggravated damages would be awarded where the officer’s conduct subjected a person to distress, embarrassment and humiliation;
  • Exemplary Damages: These are awarded where the police conduct amounted to an oppressive, arbitrary or unconstitutional action; exemplary damages are intended to serve as a deterrent to future wrongdoing.

Each kind of damage must be justified by the evidence presented at a trial.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Filing a Lawsuit against the Police?

If you believe that the police have violated your rights or have victimized you through criminal conduct, you may have a right to seek money damages for your injuries. It is important to speak to an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately to help you find your way through the process of making a claim. 

It is a challenge to succeed in claiming that a police officer committed misconduct, so you would definitely want an experienced criminal defense lawyer to represent you in a case of this kind.