Building a Case to Sue the Police: Difficult But Not Impossible

It is common to want to sue the police after unpleasant contact or friction, especially when the conflict resulted in an arrest that seemed unwarranted, unfair, or downright abusive. Suing the police is complicated, though, even when you have been a victim of some kind of police misconduct and are absolutely innocent with regard to your arrest. This overview of the downfalls you may encounter when you sue the police will help you understand and protect your rights.

Suing the police for abuse or other violations can be an arduous task not only because of the time and expense involved but also due to certain legal protections that apply to police. However, it is possible to successfully sue the police by becoming aware of the law’s allowances and limitations, carefully building a solid case, and staying the course.

Legal Protections for Both Citizens and Police

Federal and state laws protect citizens from abuse and other violations by government officials, such as police officers. Victims of abuse by police can sue the officers individually as well as the local governments that employ them. Typically, people sue the police under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This law is known simply as Section 1983, and it specifically prohibits anyone acting under the authority of the law from violating another person’s civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The police also enjoy legal protections, including “qualified immunity,” which generally insulates them from lawsuits. Police are given this protection to enable them to perform their job effectively – the idea being that police have a difficult job, and if they had to constantly worry about lawsuits, then their ability to enforce the law would be inhibited. Nevertheless, qualified immunity does not apply if it can be shown that the police willfully acted in an unreasonable manner. If the police acted negligently, however, that is not enough to overcome immunity.  

How to Sue the Police for Misconduct

The police abuses and violations suffered by citizens that are most often litigated are known generally as police misconduct. These cases usually involve, but are not limited to, actions such as discrimination, harassment, false arrest, and excessive force.

  • In order to sue the police for discrimination or harassment, the victim must show that there is a pattern of this behavior; one incident of discriminatory or harassing conduct is not enough.
  • False arrest claims usually assert that the victim’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure was violated. To prove such a violation, the victim must show that the police did not have probable cause, or sufficient evidence to warrant an arrest. If the police had probable cause, or believed that they had probable cause, then most courts will not find a Fourth Amendment violation.
  • A claim for excessive force maintains that the police used unreasonable force under the circumstances in dealing with the victim and typically, the victim suffers serious injury or death. There is no concrete definition of excessive force, so it is up to the victim to show that his or her particular situation did not call for the amount of force used by police.

If you sue the police for misconduct and win, you may be awarded damages, or monetary compensation, as restitution for the violation of your civil rights and any physical or emotional injuries. The court may also require the police officers and police department involved to pay punitive damages, which is meant as punishment for the misconduct.

What You Should Do to Sue the Police

If you have had a confrontation with the police in which you believe there was inappropriate behavior and you are considering a lawsuit, there are several things you can do to build a strong foundation for your case.

  • Speak to a civil rights attorney as soon as possible. It is important to work with an attorney, especially one who is familiar with police misconduct cases, because they are complex and difficult to try in court. Also, if you have been charged with a crime as part of the incident – oftentimes, police will charge victims of their misconduct with a crime, such as resisting arrest or assault, in order to defend their behavior – it can impact your case tremendously. An attorney with experience in police misconduct cases can assist you with navigating both a lawsuit and a criminal charge. In addition, an attorney will usually conduct an independent investigation that involves interviewing witnesses, interviewing doctors who treated you for any injuries you sustained, and obtaining police experts to testify about appropriate police conduct, which will help solidify your case. If cost is a concern, ask attorneys that you meet with if he or she will accept a contingency fee, meaning that he or she will get paid only if you win. Many attorneys who take these types of cases work on a contingency basis.
  • Preserve as much evidence as you can by taking pictures of any injuries, keeping and storing any clothing or other objects that were damaged by police in the incident, and locating people who saw the incident to act as witnesses in your case.
  • File complaints with the police department involved as well as the United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney General’s office. You will want to do this with the guidance of your attorney, as these complaints may help or hurt your case depending upon the specific facts of your situation.