Police Liability: Civil Liability for Police Abuse of Authority

Abuse of power by the police is common, perhaps even rampant, but police liability still tends to be limited in instances of abuse and violence by police during arrests and other contact with the public. However, police may be held liable according to federal law. United States Code Section 1983 provides that police liability includes civil liability for damages for civil rights abuses.

Why was this Law Created?
Title 42 Section 1983 of the United States Code provides for police liability for acts of abuse against the rights of civilians. The law was originally created in 1871 as the first section of the Ku Klux Clan Act. The purpose at that time was to give victims a means of suing government officials in federal court when their respective states did not have relief available. In 1961, the law took on a new form. It became a tool for checking abuse of citizens by state officials, such as police officers. The case that brought the federal government into a position to require this law was Monroe v. Pape. The African-American family in this case had been the victims of abuse of authority by police officers. In this case, the family’s home was invaded in the middle of the night and the entire family forced to stand naked in the living room while their home was ripped apart. The family’s father was arrested and questioned on a murder that had occurred two days before. At the close of this case, the Supreme Court specified their reason for expanding the old law providing for police liability and liability of other public officials as being that the courts could not protect their citizens’ 14th amendment rights because of their “prejudice, passion, neglect and intolerance.” As time passed, more victims began suing state, county and city officials, turning the federal courtroom into a place for state government reform.

When are the Police Liable?
Under 28 United States Code Section 1343(a)(3), to find police liability the police officer must have violated one of your Constitutional rights in order to sue in Federal court. The most common police related abuse of authority examples are unlawful search and seizure, unlawful arrest, unwarranted force during an arrest, and unwarranted use of deadly force.

What is Required for Police Liability?
A victim of police abuse of authority must prove two things in order for police liability to be found. The first requirement is that the action occurred “under color of law.” This means that the police officer must have been acting as an officer at the time that the incident occurred. An example of a valid claim under this first requirement would be an on-duty police officer knocking a victim unconscious after the victim had already surrendered. An example of something that would not be considered a valid claim would be an off-duty police officer getting into a fight at a bar. The difference is that one was acting as state representative, the other was not. The second requirement for police liability is that their action deprived you of either a Constitutional right or a federal statutory right. An example of a police officer abusing their authority and depriving you of a Constitutional right would be an officer arresting you at your job site simply because you had a Mexican accent. An example of something that would not be a violation would be a police officer placing you into a holding cell after arresting you for a DUI.

How Bad Does the Abuse of Authority Have to Be for Police Liability?
Police officers are given great leeway in how they do their jobs and how much force they are permitted to use. Otherwise, officers would be more concerned with getting sued than arresting a suspect. Because of this leeway, abuse of authority cases are taken on a case-by-case basis, with most cases dealing with deadly force. The general rule is that if the suspect committed a serious crime, is an obvious danger to officers or other civilians, or is evading arrest, then the police can use whatever force is necessary to catch the suspect and it will not be considered an abuse of their authority.

What should I do?
Write down everything that happened to you, being as specific as possible, but do not exaggerate any details.

Set up an appointment with a civil rights attorney and tell them what happened. The attorney will ask you for very specific details. Often a civil rights lawyer will take your case on what is called a "contingency fee," which means that the lawyer will not collect money until you have won your case. It is worth asking a lawyer whether you have a valid case; if you don't, the lawyer will let you know.