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Legal Issues Facing Police: Civil Liabilities & Lawsuits

Legal Issues Facing Police: Civil Liabilities & Lawsuits
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  • 0:03 Police Civil Liability
  • 2:11 State Torts
  • 3:47 Civil Rights Violations
  • 5:55 Police Defenses
  • 8:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Police officers can be held accountable for misconduct. Police face civil liability under certain circumstances. This lesson explains civil liability issues and lawsuits associated with policing.

Police Civil Liability

Tracey Thurman complained to local police about the violent behavior and threats she was receiving from her estranged husband. In fact, she complained at least 15 times over a 20-month period. Her friends and family complained on her behalf, too. Her complaints even included the fact that her husband continually violated a protective order by showing up at her house. However, her husband wasn't arrested until he stabbed her repeatedly in the neck, chest, and throat.

Is this police misconduct? Should the police be held responsible? Can Tracey file a lawsuit against the police?

This is a real federal case out of Connecticut, and the court answered, 'Yes.' This is an example of police civil liability. Civil liability means a defendant bears responsibility for some wrongdoing and will be ordered by a court to pay money damages or comply with some other court order.

When we talk about civil liability, we're talking about lawsuits rather than criminal prosecutions. A lawsuit is a court action where one party sues another party, seeking money damages or some other court order. Here, Tracey is our plaintiff. The plaintiff is the party who brings the lawsuit. The police are the defendants. The defendant is the party who is being sued.

The important thing to remember is that civil lawsuits require a much lower standard of proof than criminal prosecutions. When the government prosecutes a crime, the government must prove that crime beyond a reasonable doubt. However, when a plaintiff brings a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff only has to prove that the defendant is responsible by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence is simply the greater weight of the evidence.

State Torts

Plaintiffs can sue the police for all sorts of different things. Let's first take a look at state law torts. A tort is a noncriminal legal wrong.

Generally speaking, police can only be sued for intentional torts. This means the defendant intended to commit the act that then resulted in harm to the plaintiff. For example, let's say I drive my car erratically and harm other people by doing so. If I meant to drive my car that way, then those people can sue me.

Here are some examples of intentional torts that are often the subject of lawsuits against police officers, with general explanations:

  • Assault, which is creating a fear of harm in another person
  • Battery, which is physically harming another person
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress, which is purposefully acting in a way that causes severe suffering in another person
  • Trespassing, which is entering another person's property without permission

You're probably noticing that officers commit these types of acts every day! Officers need to create fear in suspects, enter people's property, and commit many other similar acts in order to successfully fulfill their duties. That's why these acts don't usually create civil liability for police officers. We'll talk more about that in just a moment.

Civil Rights Violations

Besides the various state law torts, many lawsuits against police officers are brought under federal law. Title 42 Section 1983 of the United States Code is most commonly referred to as simply Section 1983. It's a federal law allowing lawsuits against the police for civil rights violations.

The law was originally enacted in 1871 in order to give victims a way to sue government officials for wrong-doings when their states did not provide an applicable law. By 1961 and the height of the civil rights movement, the law became a means for citizens to fight police misconduct.

For a successful lawsuit, the plaintiff must show that the officer was acting under the color of law. This simply means the officer was on duty or otherwise exercising his or her authority as an officer. The plaintiff must also show he or she was deprived of a constitutional right.

Here are a few common examples:

  • A false arrest lawsuit means the plaintiff is suing the police for violating his or her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. The plaintiff alleges that the police did not have probable cause to make the arrest.
  • A malicious prosecution lawsuit means the plaintiff is suing the police for wrongfully depriving the plaintiff of his or her 14th Amendment right to liberty. The plaintiff alleges that the police brought a cruel or spiteful criminal proceeding that was without probable cause.
  • An excessive force lawsuit means the plaintiff is suing the police for wrongfully depriving the plaintiff of his or her 14th Amendment right to liberty. The plaintiff alleges that the police used an amount of force that was unreasonable considering the facts and circumstances.

Police Defenses

It's important to note, however, that police can't always be held liable for civil law violations. There are defenses available to police officers who face civil liability claims. An officer is not liable if the officer performs his or her job properly.

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