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Police Misconduct and Brutality

Law enforcement officers are not above the law. Their authority to detain, arrest, and use physical force against citizens is constrained by the Constitution and other federal, state, and local laws and regulations. However, law enforcement officers are entrusted with tools of coercive power, such as weaponry and the power of arrest. Officers can and do misuse these tools to exercise power which the law does not actually grant them. If an officer uses force against you in a situation where no force is warranted, or uses more force than is reasonably necessary, you may have legal recourse against the department employing that officer. The process of suing a public entity is complicated, and can be daunting if you are not represented by an attorney. The civil rights attorneys at Spencer Young Law can help you understand your rights and pursue wrongs against the police.

Holding a Police Department Liable for Civil Rights Violations

You may bring a claim against a local law enforcement agency when you can prove one of its employees intentionally acted to violate your civil rights as a result of the agency’s official policy or custom. The policy or custom may be expressly codified by the agency; or it may simply be so widespread in practice as to become the equivalent of an express policy.

Example 1: The Metropolis Police Department has strict regulations against performing traffic stops based on the race of the driver. It invests considerable resources to train its officers in knowing the difference between probable cause and wild assumptions. Officer Marin believes that younger Latino men are more likely to be involved in the drug trade and pulls over a driver based solely on his age, gender, and race. While this was intentional and likely violated the driver’s civil rights, he will have a hard time holding the department liable for the officer’s misconduct, because there was no express policy promoting racial profiling.

Example 2: The Gotham County Sheriff is campaigning for re-election and wants to look tough on crime. He instructs his deputies to show “zero tolerance” for offenses such as loitering and panhandling. He does not tell his deputies to act violently but is fully aware that several of them tackle and kick citizens who are not resisting arrest. It is an open secret that these displays of force are a routine part of such arrests. The deputies are intentionally carrying out a widespread practice which serves the same role as an express policy. The Sheriff’s Department may be liable for misconduct.

Excessive Use of Force

A citizen may sue an individual law enforcement officer who uses excessive force to detain or arrest the citizen if such force causes the citizen harm. Force is “excessive” if it is not reasonably necessary under the circumstances. A jury will consider several factors in deciding what was reasonably necessary: the nature of the suspected crime at issue in the encounter; whether the citizen posed or appeared to pose a threat to the officer; and whether the citizen resisted or attempted to flee arrest.

Example 1: Janelle is suspected of shoplifting some batteries from a drug store. Officer Krupke spots her walking away from the store. He sounds his siren, and Janelle stops walking. She places her hands on top of her head. Officer Krupke demands that she empty her pockets. Janelle refuses to do so and keeps her hands on top of her head. Officer Krupke pushes her forcefully so she lands on the sidewalk and the batteries fall out of her pocket. He arrests her. It was not reasonably necessary to use any force here; Janelle was suspected of a non-violent crime, was not trying to flee, and posed no apparent threat to the officer.

Example 2: Lieutenant Schrank arrests Tony for first-degree murder. Tony struggles as Lieutenant Schrank cuffs his hands. Schrank uses a taser to stun Tony, and he stops resisting. Tony is cuffed and placed in the back of a police car. Schrank does not use any more force against Tony. The jury may find the level of force here was reasonable, given the violent nature of the suspected offense and Tony’s resistance to being arrested. However, tasers are not harmless, and where less harmful methods of force are available, the use of a taser may not be reasonable.

Example 3: Rodolfo is at a large protest against police brutality. He is standing 100 feet from a line of police who are wearing riot gear and are heavily armed. He takes a can of spray paint and writes “Defund the Police” in giant letters on a wall, in full view of the police. The police announce over a loudspeaker that he is illegally vandalizing the wall and must stop immediately. Rodolfo continues. One of the police officers aims a gun at Rodolfo’s hand and fires, seriously injuring him and stopping the graffiti. Any level of force may have been unreasonable here, since Rodolfo was threatening property, not life. However, even if some force was reasonable, live fire was clearly unreasonable, and the police violated his civil rights.

If you have experienced unreasonable force by a police officer, call the Bay Area civil rights attorneys at Spencer Young Law today for a free consultation.

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