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Common Civil Rights Claims and What to do If You are A Victim

Civil Rights claims fall under Section 1983, and is the primary avenue for victims of police misconduct. 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 promulgated 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. Another aspect of these claims we need to be aware of is the concept of qualified immunity. Because it is the first roadblock to any Civil Rights claim against a police officer, lets begin our discussion there.

What is Qualified Immunity?

Defense attorneys, whether they be AUSA, or a private attorney, who is representing a police officer against a Civil Rights claim is going to raise a defense called “qualified immunity”. This is a defense that exists to prevent the fear of legal prosecution from inhibiting a police officer from enforcing the law. This means that its purpose is to provide an officer with the peace of mind that they can do their job as they need to do without the fear of litigation.

In many cases, the defense will defeat a claim if the officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional or statutory right. When asserted, the defense will usually seek a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. In order to prove qualified immunity, the judge must follow a two-step process: (1) Did the force used by the officer violate the constitution? If yes, then you must ask the question: (2) was the excessiveness of the force so “clearly established” that any reasonable officer would have known it was excessive. Answering those two questions in the affirmative can be one of the most important parts of the entire case. If you get poured out of court before the case begins, then the case is over unless you win on an appeal.

In order to overcome the defense an individual needs to show that the excessiveness of the force was “clearly established”. Okay. So how do we show that? Typically, we just show similar cases where a court has held that under those circumstances the force was excessive or violated some other constitutional right.

False Arrest Claims

This is the most common claim. Anyone bringing this claim must assert that the police officer violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. Under the 4th amendment, a police officer can make an arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence. This means that if the officer had probable cause to believe that you committed a crime, the arrest will be considered reasonable and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. The Supreme Court has said that 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. So, in order to prevail on a false arrest claim, you must show that the arresting officer did not have any facts sufficient such that a reasonable person could believe that a crime had been committed in their presence to support a finding of probable cause.

Claims of 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 police officer commenced a “criminal proceeding” against the plaintiff; (2) the proceeding resulted in a ruling favorable to the victim; (3) that there was no probable cause (see above); and (4) the proceeding was brought with “malice” or the purposes of harassment toward the victim.

Excessive Force

Excessive force claims receive the most publicity for the outrageousness of the behavior of the police officer involved, and the recent cases in Ferguson and elsewhere that have brought attention to police brutality. The results of excessive force seem the most outrageous because they quite often involve serious physical injury or death.

Whether the officer’s use of force was reasonable will depend on the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident in question. The officer’s intentions or motivations during the incident are of no consequence. This is a result based claim. This means that it will not matter in court that the officer’s intentions were bad if, under the circumstances, the amount of force the officer used was reasonable. Here is the catch: this also means that even if the officer had good intentions, but used unreasonable force, the excessive force claim will not be dismissed.

Failure to Intervene

A less known violation of a person’s Civil Rights is an officer’s duty to protect individuals from constitutional violations committed by fellow officers in their presence. This means that an officer who witnesses a fellow officer violating an individual’s Civil Rights may also be liable to the victim for failing to render aid or stop the other officer from continuing in their course of action.

What to do if You Have Been Affected By Police Misconduct:

Asserting your Civil Rights is an important part of our legal system because it helps to provide a balance between the duty of law enforcement to uphold the laws, and the rights of individuals to be free from police misconduct. If you don’t assert your rights, then this balance will not be maintained. The way the system is set up, these cases are always difficult, but it is vital to assert these claims because you will not only protecting your rights, you will also work to protect people’s rights in the future. These claims are meant to act as a deterrent to arbitrary police action.

These claims against police can be expensive because a lot of evidence is involved. We need to collect records, statements made by police, statements of the witnesses, and myriad other documentation, in order to effectively prove any misconduct. Because of that, you will need an attorney or law firm who has the ability to front the cost of this litigation. The litigation process will be long, and it will be drawn out. You need someone who has been there and fought the government in order to protect individual’s Civil Rights.

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 Guest and Gray promptly so that valuable evidence does not disappear. Before you do anything, stop and 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. Also, you need to get the names, addresses and telephone numbers of anyone who may have witnessed the incident. It is also very important to write down exactly what happened as soon as you can, so that you don’t forget.

If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of excessive force by an officer of the law, please contact our office. We will give you a no obligation consultation. Don’t wait, call now!