Most lawsuits against the police involve some form of police misconduct. Typically, police misconduct stems from the violation of an individual’s civil rights. The most common misconduct claims involve discrimination, harassment, excessive force, and false arrest.
To sue the police under the above misconduct claims, you must be able to prove the following:
- Harassment or Discrimination - Victim must show there was a pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident.
- The Victim’s Fourth Amendment Rights were violated - Typically, this involves proving that the police did not have probable cause or sufficient evidence to arrest the victim in the first place.
- The victim sustained serious injury (or death) - Applies in a situation that did not warrant the use of excessive force.
Before a victim can sue the police, most states require the victim to first go through the appropriate administrative channels. These include reporting the incident to the police department’s division of internal affairs and/or the Department of Justice.
Who Can I Sue When I Sue the Police?
Victims may sue the individual officers, the supervisor of the officers, and the government that has employed them. The most common defendants in a misconduct claim, are the individual police officers.
Suing the municipality can be difficult due to the Government Immunity Doctrine. The doctrine protects various government entities from being sued, and in some states it is still effective. Suing a police supervisor is usually only feasible if he or she was directly involved in the incident.
What Damages Can I Receive When I Sue the Police?
If you are successful in your claim against the police, the court may award damages in the form of: civil rights damages, actual damages, and/or punitive damages.
- Civil Rights Damages - remedies for the violation of your civil rights, inflicted upon you by the police officers.
- Actual Damages - remedies for pain and suffering, lost wages, and any expense related to the incident.
- Punitive Damages - usually awarded in addition to actual damages, and are intended to punish the defendants.
Are There Any Limitations to Suing the Police?
Some limitations do exist when suing the police. As previously mentioned, suing a police supervisor is difficult unless there was direct involvement. Typically, courts will not find a supervisor vicariously liable. Suing the municipality which hired the officers can also be near impossible, depending on state laws.
Another limitation to suing the police, is that of false charges. If you knowingly make a “false charge” in a state that has a law against false charges, you may face serious consequences, including jail time.
What are my Chances of Success?
The success rate of lawsuits against the police depends on the type of claim. Cases against the abuse of power, but that have legal backing, such as civil forfeitures are much more difficult to win. For example, until a reform bill following a class action suit was passed in Philadelphia in July of 2017, over 6,000 petitions for civil forfeiture funds were filed each year, raking in over $6 million dollars annually.
Philadelphia’s residents’ cash, homes, cars, and other assets were used to pay salaries, including the salaries of the prosecutors who filed these claims. Though the reform bill is in place, property owners can still lose their property without being convicted, or even charged with an offense. The law is stacked against people who have lost property to the police. If this has happened to you, it is a good idea to consult an attorney.
Lawsuits against police that may be easier to prove could involve negligence, excessive force, or intent. For instance, in Minneapolis on July 18, 2017, an Australian woman called 911 after she suspected a possible assault in an alley near her home. Upon arrival, a police officer shot her from his driver’s seat window, mortally wounding her with a single gunshot wound to the abdomen. Since the police officer’s body camera had also been turned off, the question of intent is apparent.
Wrongful death lawsuits and even homicide charges are not uncommon in situations like this, as the law is less protective of police in this type of crime, as opposed to cases such as civil forfeiture. Seeking legal advice is imperative in understanding where your case stands, and the likelihood of it being successful in court.
Do I Need an Attorney to Sue the Police?
If you were victimized by the police, it is a wise idea to speak with an attorney immediately. Taking action against any government entity is a challenge, and you don’t have to go through it alone. A qualified criminal lawyer can help you build your case, represent you in court, and bring justice to those who wronged you.