The Rodney King beating and the ensuing LA riots illustrated the problems -- and implications -- of police brutality and misconduct. While police officers generally have broad powers to carry out their duties, the Constitution places limits on how far police may go in their efforts to enforce the law. If police violate citizens' rights by acting beyond the scope of their position, citizens have legal recourse through laws that allow injured parties to enforce their constitutional rights.
What is Immunity?
Generally, an officer's actions while on the job are protected from liability under the legal doctrine of governmental immunity. This is essentially a rule that the government cannot be sued unless it gives permission to do so. Although being stopped and questioned by police is often an unsettling and even emotionally distressing experience, as long as the officer is performing his job properly, the officer has not violated your constitutional rights. In other words, the police generally cannot be sued for reasonable actions taken while on the job.
It may seem unfair that the government can refuse to be sued -- however, various federal and state laws have been enacted to allow victims of police misconduct to file suit and receive money damages.
42 U.S. Code, Section 1983 serves as the primary legal basis for police misconduct claims under federal law. Section 1983 was originally passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was intended to protect the rights of African Americans during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Section 1983 is important because it creates a right to sue an individual, who while acting under the government's authority, violates another's constitutional rights. Not only does Section 1983 make it unlawful for government figures to deprive an individual of his or her rights under the Constitution or federal law -- it also allows the victim to collect money damages.
The most common state claims brought against police officers are for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and use of excessive or unreasonable force. Here is some information on some of these:
False Arrest -- A false arrest claim usually asserts that the police lacked probable cause to make an arrest. Probable cause means that there are enough facts for a reasonable person to believe a crime was committed. Keep in mind that a warrant is not required to arrest someone for a felony or misdemeanor committed in a police officer's presence.
Malicious Prosecution -- A malicious prosecution claim generally asserts that the government pursued legal action against an individual without probable cause. To win this type of claim, the victim must show four things:
Excessive Force -- An excessive force claim asserts that the officer's use of force was unreasonable given the facts and circumstances of the case. The court will generally look to the amount of force used by the officer, but the officer's intentions or motivations prompting this use of force may or may not be considered. For example, if the amount of force was reasonable, it may not matter that the officer acted with bad intentions -- and the excessive force claim may fail. The reverse may also be true: there may be a viable excessive force claim if the officer used unreasonable force, even if he or she had good intentions.
Police Misconduct in California
Pursuing a police misconduct claim in California can be a complicated process that should be followed accurately and in a timely manner. For state claims such as false arrest and false imprisonment, a notice of claim must be filed with the police agency within six months of the incident to preserve the right to sue. Filing a notice of claim does not mean you have started a lawsuit -- instead, it basically lets the government know that you intend to file a lawsuit. Once the notice of claim is filed, you have six months to file a lawsuit -- one year from the date of the incident. Note that you cannot file a lawsuit until you have filed the notice of claim. There are a few narrow and specific exceptions to these two deadlines, so it is generally a good idea to act sooner rather than later.
When it comes to proving your case, the most important element is the evidence supporting your claim. If you believe you have been a victim of police misconduct, you can take steps to help ensure that valuable evidence does not disappear. For example, it is often helpful to write down what happened as soon as you can, so that you don't forget any important details. You may also want to take photographs of any injuries or damage, and/or set aside clothing or other objects stained with blood from the incident.
More Information & Additional Assistance
Police misconduct claims can be complicated, due in large part to the procedures required to overcome governmental immunity. To read up on the laws protecting your rights, feel free to browse FindLaw's section on searches and seizures. You may also want to contact an attorney to help you determine if your case has legal merit, help you preserve your claim, and help you navigate the complicated administrative procedures and filing deadlines involved in misconduct cases.
Contact a qualified attorney.