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Can I Sue for Police Brutality/Excessive Force?


Laws exist to protect citizens from abuse by government officials, including police officers. If an officer used excessive force when arresting you or a loved one, this may constitute a civil rights violation. Victims of police brutality do have legal recourse and may file a civil suit against the arresting officer or officers, as well as the municipality employing them.

Police Brutality Protection: The Civil Rights Act of 1871

Nearly all suits against police officers cite Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Under Section 1983, it is illegal for anyone in a position of legal authority to deny a citizen's constitutional rights. Claims of excessive force use Section 1983 as they fall under Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable seizure.

Section 1983 allows police brutality victims to sue law enforcement officers, their superiors, and city and county governments or officials. Police departments may not be sued directly, but municipalities and the mayor may.

What is Excessive Force?

Excessive force does not have a universally recognized definition. It generally means that the arresting officer used more force than was necessary under the circumstances. Additionally, the officer's use of excessive force resulted in extreme injury or death. The lack of a legal definition of excessive force, though, places the burden of proof on the victim.

Usually, when arresting or detaining a person suspected of a crime, police officers have the authority to use whatever force they deem necessary to either make the arrest or defend themselves against a suspect resisting arrest. Typically, juries are asked to decide what a "reasonable" person would have deemed necessary. This question depends on facts such as whether the suspect resisted arrest or threatened the officer with great bodily harm or death. Another consideration is whether the person was arrested under suspicion of a felony or misdemeanor. The answers to each of these questions inform the level of force considered necessary and reasonable.

When Can You Resist Arrest?

The short answer to this question is that suspects almost never have the right to forcefully resist arrest and courts rarely rule on behalf of a suspect who did so. On those rare cases that they do, the court then determines whether the level of resistance was appropriate.

In most states, when police officers use excessive force it is considered assault. In these states, arrestees may defend themselves against excessive force if they believe they are in danger of serious injury or death. However, you must be able to prove that a reasonable person would have felt this level of threat to his or her safety, and therefore felt resisting in self-defense was necessary. Again, courts rarely agree with this defense.

What is Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity statutes protect public employees from liability for injuries caused during the enactment of their professional duties. In certain circumstances, though, many courts exempt police officers from qualified immunity. Essentially, the officer in question must have demonstrated willful and unreasonable conduct that violated your civil rights. Note that this is true in most courts, not all courts.

Governmental immunity protects states from private suits, presenting another challenge to excessive force victims. Many states also have similar immunity laws protecting their municipalities from private suits. The question of whether a private citizen may sue his or her local government depends on the particular case and jurisdiction.

Proving Your Police Brutality Case

Typically, civil suits require both parties, the plaintiff and the defendant, prove their cases to the same set of standards. This means both sides go into the court on equal footing, with both parties needing to prove the validity and justification of their arguments. A suit alleging police brutality is a civil suit, but unlike typical lawsuits, many courts assume the defendant, in this case the arresting officer, acted correctly. This means the plaintiff must overcome this initial bias in order to prove his or her case. The plaintiff's guilt or innocence of the crime for which he or she was arrested is not considered in the final decision. However, the ability to prove that innocence does help demonstrate an excessive use of force was unnecessary.

Contact a Civil Rights Attorney

If you were arrested and believe the officer behaved inappropriately, there are steps you can take to help prove your case. To begin with, contact a civil rights attorney as soon as possible, preferably one with experience handling police misconduct cases. This is especially important if you face criminal charges as well. The right attorney can advise you on both your lawsuit and pending criminal charges. The consultation is free of charge, and many civil rights attorneys work on contingency.

Finally, help your attorney by preserving evidence such as clothing and property damaged during the incident, photographing injuries, and gathering witness information.