Suing the police is an option if they have engaged in misconduct by violating someone’s constitutional rights. It is difficult to succeed in a lawsuit against the police, but not impossible. Law enforcement is not above the law, and a victim of police misconduct has the option to sue the police, either by filing a complaint against an individual officer, their supervisor, or the department.
There are several examples of police behavior that might be considered misconduct. These include false arrest and imprisonment, perjury, police brutality and corruption, racial profiling, falsification of evidence, fraud, coercion or torture to force a confession, abuse of authority, physical or sexual assault, and spoliation of evidence.
The most common misconduct claims are:
- Harassment: A successful police harassment lawsuit requires evidence of a pattern of behavior on the part of the police officer or department. Harassment can include a variety of behavior on the part of the police, including illegally spying or surveilling, racial profiling, or making sexist, racist, or homophobic comments.
- Discrimination: Like harassment, there must be proof that the behavior is part of a pattern. Discrimination might be on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, or sexual orientation.
- Fourth Amendment Violation: The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees protection from unreasonable searches and seizures at the hands of the government. The police are considered agents of the government and are required to adhere to the protections in the Fourth Amendment. Officers who violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights by searching their home without a valid warrant, or arresting them without probable cause, may be subject to a lawsuit.
- Excessive Force: Where a person has been the victim of excessive force by a police officer that resulted in serious injury or death, they have grounds for a lawsuit against the police. A victim must be able to show that the amount of force used was absolutely unnecessary and that the officer could have accomplished his goal without using as much force.
In addition to filing a lawsuit, a victim of police misconduct can file a complaint against the officer or the department with the internal affairs section of the police department or the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice can decide whether to investigate and has the option of filing its own civil or criminal case against a law enforcement agency.
Who Specifically Can I Sue?
Individual police officers, supervisors, and police departments themselves can be named in a lawsuit alleging police misconduct. The government that employs and oversees the department can also be sued, however governmental immunity offers protection to municipalities subjected to police misconduct lawsuits.
Governmental immunity is a policy that protects governments and government agencies from lawsuits in many cases. The intent behind governmental immunity is to make it easier for governments to make decisions and take action without the fear of being sued for their conduct.
A common question someone who has been arrested for a crime they did not commit is, can you sue the county for false charges? You may attempt to sue the county if you think false charges have been filed against you; however governmental immunity will make it difficult to succeed.
Police officers have some immunity known as “qualified immunity.” Qualified immunity means that police officers are protected from being sued as long as they are acting within the guidelines of their job and not acting negligently or unreasonably. Like governmental immunity, qualified immunity gives police officers room to do their job without the fear of lawsuits interfering.
Governmental immunity and qualified immunity makes it difficult to sue anyone other than the officer directly involved in the case. Most of the time a court will not find a supervisor vicariously liable for the actions of another person, or the police officer they hired.
Can You Sue the Police for False Arrest?
Suing the police for false arrest is the allegation that the police acted without legal authority, or went beyond the power granted to them by their position as police officers. An officer who acted to arrest someone based on information they thought was true and reasonable, but was actually false, will not be guilty of false arrest.
On the other hand, if a police officer arrests a person based on their personal feelings or because that person insulted them, you can file police false arrest charges. Insulting a police officer is not a crime, so arresting someone for doing so (without them being under arrest for some other legitimate reason) is illegal.
Can I Sue the Police Department for Violating My Rights?
Any person interacting with the police is protected against violations of their civil rights. They have the right not to be harassed, discriminated against, or assaulted. They are protected from the use of excessive force and unreasonable search or seizure.
When filing a lawsuit against an individual police officer, the plaintiff typically includes the police department as a defendant in the lawsuit as well. It is necessary to prove that the conduct that is the basis for the lawsuit against the department is part of a pattern of harassment, discrimination, or excessive force. Without evidence of a pattern of misconduct, a lawsuit against the department is unlikely to be successful.
What are My Chances of Success? What Damages Might I Be Awarded?
A lawsuit against the police is not always an easy one to win. Some police departments lack transparency and might make it difficult to gather evidence about past conduct of the officer you are suing. At the same time, it is relatively easy for the police to find and use evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the plaintiff against them.
In order to be successful in a lawsuit against the police, it is important that you have taken to protect your rights in court. First, save any evidence of police misconduct. This might include photographs or video, eyewitness testimony, or medical records if you suffered physical injuries.
If you are successful in a lawsuit against the police and prevail at trial the available damages depend on the circumstances of the case:
- Economic Damages: if the court found that the police were guilty of misconduct, the plaintiff might be awarded economic damages to compensate for financial losses. Economic damages might include lost income, loss of future income, medical expenses, future medical care.
- Non-Economic or General Damages: non-economic damages compensate the plaintiff for “intangible losses” or those that do not come with an easily calculated cost. These damages include pain and suffering, mental and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, or loss of consortium.
- Punitive Damages: punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for their misconduct. It is intended to deter the officer from engaging in the behavior again.
Police officers have some defenses available to them if they are sued. If the lawsuit is based on an allegation of excessive force, the officer can claim that their actions were reasonable based on the behavior of the plaintiff.
A police officer is justified in using an amount of force that matches the force that is being used against them, or is necessary to protect the safety of the officer or others who may be at risk. An office arresting a subject who is actively resting can use more force than one arresting a suspect who is calm and cooperative.
Officers also have the defense of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects officers from personal liability unless they violated “clearly established” law. This is a difficult defense to overcome in some cases where the facts have not been addressed before. Essentially, if the court has never held that a particular action on the part of the police is illegal, then the office is protected by the qualified immunity defense.
Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me If I Want to Sue the Police?
It is very important that you contact a criminal attorney if you think you might have a claim against a police officer or police department. It is critical that you gather and preserve as much evidence as possible.
An experienced criminal attorney can assist you throughout the entire process, from gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, to negotiating with the defendant and representing you in court.