It is absolutely possible to sue the police, because they are not themselves above the law. While it is difficult, it is definitely not impossible to succeed in a lawsuit against the police. Lawsuits against law enforcement typically involve some form of police misconduct. Police misconduct occurs when a police officer violates someone else’s constitutional rights.
There are several examples of police misconduct, including false arrest and imprisonment, perjury, police brutality and corruption, racial profiling, and the falsification and spoliation of evidence, among others. The most common of these misconduct claims are:
- Harassment or Discrimination: In order to sue a police officer for harassment or discrimination, the victim must prove that there was a pattern of behavior, rather than a singular, isolated incident.
- For example, if a police officer has established a pattern of treating one group of people with undue force, but not another group, it could be claimed that they have a pattern of harassment or discrimination;
- Violating the Victim’s Fourth Amendment Rights: The Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution dictates that citizens are protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. This could be used as an argument in a false arrest case. The victim would need to prove that the police officer did not have probable cause to warrant the arrest; and
- Excessive Force, Resulting in the Serious Injury or Death of the Victim: This claim is very serious and must not be made lightly. As there is not currently a concrete definition for excessive force, the victim must prove that the amount of force used against them was absolutely unnecessary, and that the police officer could have come to the same result without as much force as was used.
Suing a police officer for emotional distress is also possible. However, it is on the victim to prove that the police officer acted intentionally or recklessly to cause the emotional injury, or that the police officer acted so negligently that their actions caused emotional distress.
Before a citizen can proceed with suing a police officer, they must first go through the appropriate administrative channels. Most states actually require this prior to filing a lawsuit. Administrative law governs the activities of governmental agencies, and could include reporting the incident to the police department’s division of internal affairs or the Department of Justice.
Victims may sue the individual police officers involved in their case, the supervisor of those officers involved, as well as the government that has employed and regulates them. Most commonly, in misconduct claims, it is the individual police officer themselves being sued. Governmental immunity plays a large role when suing the offending municipality.
Governmental immunity involves policies that protect the government and governmental agencies from being sued in many cases. These protections are meant to make it easier for governments to make decisions due to being free from interference from lawsuits.
Because of how difficult the governmental immunity doctrine makes suing a municipality, suing a police officer supervisor is generally only feasible if they were directly involved with the incident in question. Typically, courts will not find a supervisor vicariously liable, or responsible for the actions of another person, such as a person they hired.
Additionally, there are protections in place for making false charges. In some states, if you are found to have knowingly made false charges against the police officer you are attempting to sue, you may face serious consequences including jail time.
The chances of success when suing a police officer depends greatly on the type of claim being made against the officer. Cases against abuse of power that have legal backing, such as civil forfeiture (or the legal confiscation of personal property without a warrant), are typically much more difficult to win.
Property owners are at risk of losing their property without being convicted, or even charged with an offense, and the law is unfortunately stacked against those who have lost property to the police. Conversely, some see civil forfeiture as a tool utilized by the police to discourage organized crime involved in illegal drug trade, or other similar criminal organizations.
Easier-to-prove lawsuits could include negligence, excessive force, or intent. For instance, if an officer fatally wounds an innocent bystander, but the officer’s body camera was not recording the incident, the question of intent would come into play. Wrongful death lawsuits, as well as homicide charges, are not uncommon as the law is less likely to protect police officers involved in this type of crime.
If your claim is successful, the court will typically award:
- Civil Rights Damages: These are remedies for the violation of your civil rights, as violated by the police officer(s) in question;
- Actual Damages: These are quantifiable damages, such as lost wages and expenses relating to the incident; or
- Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are usually awarded in addition to actual damages, and are intended to punish the defendant(s).
Disputes with police officers are serious matters and tend to involve complicated issues, such as civil rights. While they are common, it is often difficult to take a case to trial and succeed. This is due to the rule of qualified/governmental immunity, as mentioned above.
However, if you have believe that you have been victimized by the police and think the police’s actions will be beyond the protection of governmental immunity, then it is in your best interests to speak with a knowledgeable and skilled criminal attorney immediately. They will help you determine your best options, as well as represent you in a court of law, if necessary.