Police Brutality: You May Be Able to Sue the Police

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Police brutality is all too common in society today, but what many people don’t realize is that victims of police brutality may be able to sue the police for their injuries. Even individuals who were drunk at the time of their arrest sometimes successfully build lawsuits against the police.

What is the history of police brutality?
Police brutality is nothing new to America. In fact, as early as 1866, there are accounts of police officers brutally beating and killing striking railroad workers. In more recent years, police have had the messy task of controlling protests of both labor groups and minorities. In many of these instances, the final result was acts of police brutality.

In 1961, the Supreme Court could no longer sit back and observe police brutality, which at that time was focused on African-Americans. To prevent further police brutality and offer relief to those families who suffer harm at the hands of the police, the Supreme Court extended Title 42 Section 1983 of the United States Code to apply to police brutality. Under this law, victims of police brutality could now sue in Federal Court and collect damages.

What is Police Brutality?
Police brutality occurs when police officers use more force than is necessary to apprehend a suspect or control a situation. The historical example of police brutality comes from the case of Monroe v. Pape, where the police forced an African-American family to stand naked in their living room while the police tore apart their house under the guise of obtaining evidence related to recent murder. This example of police brutality happened without a warrant or probably cause.

When can I sue for Police Brutality?
Modern police are given great discretion for how they complete their jobs. This discretion ensures that police officers will boldly and quickly apprehend suspects to prevent harm to civilians.

Police brutality happens if the police use unreasonable force when apprehending a suspect. Unreasonable force is determined by three factors:

1. Severity of the Crime at Issue
The idea is that suspects who have endangered the lives of civilians with violent crimes are still a danger during apprehension, so more force can be used. For example, there is no police brutality when an officer shoots a suspect who just murdered a civilian and is still in possession of the weapon. An example of police brutality is an unarmed suspect fleeing the scene of a theft who is shot by police.

2. Resisting Arrest
Quite simply put, if a suspect fights the police when they were trying to arrest them or runs from the scene when asked to stop, then the suspect resisted arrest and the police may use more force. An example of police brutality would be if a suspect was already handcuffed and the officer knocked him unconscious.

3. Harm to Others
The entire purpose of police intervention in actions is to protect civilians. If a suspect is posing a threat to civilians or other officers, then police have the right to do whatever is necessary to stop the threat. An example of police brutality would be an officer using deadly force to break up a peaceful protest.

What should I do if I think I am a victim of Police Brutality?
1. Save all the evidence related to the event in question. Items that can help your case include torn clothing, pictures of injuries including bruises, damaged property such as broken furniture or other items, and any video or photos of the actual incident.

2. Write down the entire incident while it is fresh in your mind. Make sure that every detail is specifically mentioned, including anything that was said between you and the police. Never lie or add any extra details to your story. Remember that there will be multiple witnesses and accounts of the events, so yours must be completely truthful.

3. Contact a civil rights lawyer and set up a consultation. Civil rights law is complex and spans both state and federal laws. Using a lawyer ensures that every possible claim is listed and tried. When you speak with the lawyer, make sure that you inquire about their track record and the amount of police brutality cases they have successfully won.

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