Police officers generally have broad powers to carry out their duties. The Constitution and other laws, however, place limits on how far police can go in trying to enforce the law. As the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, in Los Angeles and several recent cases in New York have illustrated, police officers sometimes go too far, violating the rights of citizens. When this happens, the victim of the misconduct may have recourse through federal and state laws. A primary purpose of the nation's civil rights laws is to protect citizens from abuses by government, including police misconduct. Civil rights laws allow attorney fees and compensatory and punitive damages as incentives for injured parties to enforce their rights.
Being stopped and questioned by police in connection with a crime is an unsettling experience for most anyone. As long as the officer is performing his job properly, however, there is no violation of a suspect's rights. In fact, police are immune from suit for the performance of their jobs unless willful, unreasonable conduct is demonstrated. Mere negligence, the failure to exercise due care, is not enough to create liability. Immunity therefore means that in the typical police-suspect interaction, the suspect cannot sue the police. Civil rights remedies come into play for willful police conduct that violates an individual's constitutional rights.
Civil Rights Laws and Police Misconduct
A statute known as Section 1983 is the primary civil rights law victims of police misconduct rely upon. This law was originally passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was intended to curb oppressive conduct by government and private individuals participating in vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. It is now called 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 Constitution or federal law. The most common claims brought against police officers are false arrest (or false imprisonment), malicious prosecution, and use of excessive or unreasonable force.
False Arrest The claim that is most often asserted against police is false arrest. Persons bringing this claim assert that police violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable 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. (Some states also allow warrantless arrests for misdemeanor domestic assaults not committed in the officer's 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: 1) the defendant police officer commenced a criminal proceeding; 2) the proceeding ended in the victim's favor (that is, no conviction); 3) there was no probable cause; and 4) 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. 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.
Failure to Intervene Officers have a duty to protect individuals from constitutional violations by fellow officers. Therefore, an officer who witnesses a fellow officer violating an individual's constitutional rights may be liable to the victim for failing to intervene.
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. In order 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, and produced some injury or damages to the victim.
Police Misconduct: If You've Been Affected
Civil rights claims are an important 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. Yet cases against police officers can be difficult. Officers may be immune from suit, even though an individual feels he or she was mistreated. Claims against police departments can also 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. If you feel you've been the victim of police misconduct, contact a Civil Rights Attorney promptly so that valuable evidence does not disappear. Take photographs of any injuries or damage caused by the police, and set aside clothing or other objects that was 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.
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — It was the salute that shocked Spokane.
About 50 Spokane cops stood and saluted a fellow officer as he left a federal courtroom in custody last month after being convicted of using excessive force in the death of a mentally ill janitor.
That salute was quickly denounced by the mayor and chief of police as insensitive to the victim's family. And critics saw it as yet another sign that Spokane cops are estranged from the citizens they are sworn to protect.
The Spokane Police Department is under fire on many fronts.
The outgoing mayor is asking the federal government to investigate the practices of the department. Efforts to create a citizen ombudsman to hear complaints against police have been stonewalled. Some residents have even suggested the department should be dissolved and merged with the Spokane County Sheriff's Office.
There are also signs that the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation of the department, although Justice officials have declined to comment.
"This is not just a bad apple problem," said Liz Moore of the Peace and Justice Action League, which is critical of police. "This is a rotten apple barrel problem."
All the bad blood is having an impact.
"Officers who feel they are risking their lives are not getting the respect they deserve, and citizens don't feel safe to call the police," said Breean Beggs, an attorney who is suing the city on behalf of the family of janitor Otto Zehm, who was killed by police.
Police officers killed three people in Spokane in 2010 while sheriff's deputies killed two. In 2009, the last full year available, only 10 people died in arrest-related incidents at the hands of law enforcement officers in Washington, according to a Justice Department report.
The most notorious police death in Spokane occurred in 2006, when Zehm, a schizophrenic, died at the hands of a group of officers in a convenience store. Zehm, who had committed no crime, was beaten, shot with a Taser, hog-tied and sat on until he passed out and died two days later without regaining consciousness.
According to court records, Zehm's final words were, "All I wanted was a Snicker's bar."
After what federal prosecutors described as five years of cover ups by local officials, a federal jury in November convicted Officer Karl Thompson for use of excessive force and lying about it to investigators.
It was at a post-conviction hearing where Thompson's freedom was revoked that the 50 officers stood at attention and saluted him.
"I was shocked by their willingness to ignore the fact that 12 jurors ... found what Officer Thompson did was a criminal act," said attorney Jeffrey Finer, who also represents the Zehm family in their lawsuit against the city.
Mayor Mary Verner and police chief Anne Kirkpatrick issued a joint statement saying the salute does not reflect the city's values.
"It clearly was insensitive to the friends and family of Otto Zehm, and for that, we apologize," the statement said.
Tom Rice, an assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane, has declined to say if the investigation into police corruption in the Zehm coverup is continuing. But the U.S. Attorney's Office has in press releases described the police actions as "an extensive cover up," which could indicate additional officers were involved, with the possibility of more indictments.
"I can't confirm or deny that," Rice said.
Meanwhile, a request by Verner for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to review the practices of the police department has not been acted on yet, Rice said.
The Spokane Police Guild has issued a statement saying it welcomes outside scrutiny of the department.
"The guild and the employees it represents have a proven track record of supporting transparency, accountability, and oversight for the SPD," the guild said in a press release. "The employees represented by the guild ... want the citizens of Spokane to be proud of their police department.
Guild officials did not reply to a request from The Associated Press for an interview.
Verner's defeat in the November mayoral election was partly blamed on her failure to push hard for charges against police officers in Zehm's death. Mayor-elect David Condon criticized Verner's actions and called for greater police oversight. Condon takes office in January.
"The city of Spokane has mishandled the Otto Zehm case from the very beginning," Condon said during the campaign. "The indictment of a Spokane police officer by a federal grand jury was an indictment of Spokane's city government itself."
Some residents appear to be be fed up.
Verner was defeated in November after just one term in office. Kirkpatrick has resigned as police chief. And a recall effort has been launched against county prosecutor Steve Tucker over his refusal to bring charges against police officers in many of the violent incidents.
After Zehm died, there was a "well-planned and blatant cover-up by public officials of a police-involved homicide,'" recall organizer Shannon Sullivan contended. Tucker should have led an investigation into the death, rather than relying on federal prosecutors to pursue the case, she said.
Tucker said the recall petition is filled with "rumors and hearsay,'" and there was no evidence of a cover-up when the FBI investigation began.
Thompson, 64, a 40-year police veteran, faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 27.
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