Police Brutality/Civil Rights Violations

Swat team police running around in clouds of tear gas.

Swat team police running around in clouds of tear gas.

Each year, tens of thousands of individuals are arrested and charged with crimes in Philadelphia alone.  Not all of those arrests are justified or legal. What could start as a routine traffic stop can end up in tragedy. Sometimes police use excessive or abusive force.

When police abuse their powers, the law says that people may bring a lawsuit against the police and the local government for money damages.  The Law Firm of Scarpello & LaTour has experience prosecuting claims against the Philadelphia Police and the City of Philadelphia.  We can help you evaluate and fight your case against the police department.

But bringing police misconduct or police brutality claim to fruition can be difficult, no matter the jurisdiction.

Police officers are given broad powers to carry out their duties. The Constitution — including the fourth amendment — and other laws state and federal, however, does place specific limits on how far police can go in trying to perform their duties. Their constitutional rights protect every citizen.

So as the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, in Los Angeles illustrated, police officers can take an investigation too far, violating the rights of American citizens. When this Police misconduct happens, the victim of that misconduct may have recourse through federal and state laws. One of the core elements of the United States’ federal civil rights laws is to protect American citizens from abuses by government, including police misconduct. Civil rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act allow for things such as attorney fees and compensatory and punitive damages as incentives for injured parties to enforce their rights.

Overcoming Police Immunity

Police officers are immune from lawsuits related to the performance of their jobs unless the law enforcement officer commits willful, unreasonable conduct and such conduct can be legally demonstrated. That means mere negligence, the failure to exercise due care, is not enough to create liability. What that means is that being stopped and questioned by police in connection with a crime — while an unsettling experience — is not cause for a lawsuit. As long as the law enforcement officer performs his or her job correctly, there is no violation of a suspect’s rights.
Immunity, therefore, means that in the typical police-suspect interaction, the suspect cannot sue the law enforcement officials, the police department or the justice department. Civil rights remedies only come into play for willful police conduct that violates an individual citizen’s constitutional rights.

Civil Rights Laws and Police Misconduct

A statute known as Section 1983 is the primary civil rights federal law victims of police misconduct rely upon. This law was initially passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. It was intended to put a stop to oppressive conduct by government and private individuals participating in vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. It is now commonly referrred to as Section 1983 because that is where the law has been published, within Title 42 of the United States Code. Section 1983 makes it unlawful for anyone acting under the authority of state law to deprive another person of his or her rights under the U.S. Constitution or any other federal law. The most common claims brought against law enforcement officials and police officers are:

  • False arrest

  • Malicious prosecution

  • Excessive use of force

  • Unreasonable use of force

  • False arrest

  • Sexual assault

Here’s a closer look at the various claims that civil rights lawyers argue on behalf of clients claiming they are victims of police misconduct:

False Arrest Claims

The claim most often brought against police officers is a false arrest. Persons bringing this claim allege that the police violated their Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure. If the officer had probable cause to believe the individual had committed a crime, the arrest is reasonable, and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. Police can arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence.

Even if the information the officer relied upon later turns out to be false, the officer is not liable if he believed it was accurate at the time of the arrest. To prevail on a false arrest claim, the victim must show that the arresting officer lacked probable cause, that is, facts sufficient to cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime had been committed.

Malicious Prosecution

A malicious prosecution claim asserts that the officer wrongly deprived the victim of the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty. To win this type of claim, the victim must show four things:

  • The defendant police officer commenced a criminal proceeding.

  • The proceeding ended in the victim’s favor.

  • There was no probable cause.

  • The proceeding was brought with malice toward the victim.

As with false arrest, this claim will fail if the officer had probable cause to initiate criminal proceedings.

Excessive Force

Excessive force claims receive the most publicity, perhaps because the results of excessive force seem the most outrageous, involving serious physical injury or death. Police brutality, police shootings, and sexual assault by police officers tend to get a lot of media play. Whether the officer’s use of force was reasonable depends on the surrounding facts and circumstances. The officer’s intentions or motivations are not controlling. If the amount of force was reasonable, it doesn’t matter that the officer’s intentions were bad. But the reverse is also true: if the officer had good intentions, but used unreasonable force, the excessive force claim will not be dismissed.

The Qualified Immunity Defense

Defense attorneys representing a police officer for any of these claims will raise a defense of qualified immunity. This defense exists to prevent the fear of legal prosecution from inhibiting a police officer from enforcing the law. The defense will defeat a claim against the officer if the officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional or statutory right. In other words, the specific acts the officer prevented the individual from engaging in must be legally protected, otherwise, there is no civil rights violation.

To win a civil rights claim, an individual bringing a police misconduct claim must prove that the actions of the police exceeded reasonable bounds, infringed the victim’s constitutional rights or due process, and produced some injury or damages to the victim — such as wrongful death by police due to police shootings.

Claims against police departments can be expensive to bring because a lot of evidence must be secured, including records, statements of police, statements of witnesses, and various other documentation, to prove the misconduct. The evidence supporting your claim is the most important element in a police misconduct suit. Take photographs of any injuries or damage caused by the police, and set aside clothing or other objects that were torn or stained with blood from the incident. Try to get the names and addresses or telephone numbers of anyone who may have witnessed the incident. Also, write down exactly what happened as soon as you can, so that you don’t forget important details.

Assert your Rights Against Police Misconduct

Civil rights claims are an essential part of our legal system, providing a balance between the duty of law enforcement to uphold the laws, and the rights of individuals to be free from police misconduct. Cases against police officers can be difficult. Officers may be immune from suit, even though an individual feels he or she was mistreated. If you think you’ve been the victim of police

Contact us for your free consultation today!