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What happens when police officers violate the civil liberties of citizens while enforcing the law? This question is front and center following the recent death of a Minneapolis man while in police custody. Can you sue the police?

The short answer is yes. A federal statute known as Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows victims of police misconduct to file a “civil lawsuit” when they believe their constitutional rights have been infringed. The victim’s family in the Minneapolis case has hired a legal team to pursue civil rights litigation over the alleged police misconduct, but winning a Section 1983 civil liberties lawsuit can be challenging (but not impossible). Why?

Despite recorded evidence of the police officer’s use of excessive force in this case—which autopsies show to have caused the man’s death—and despite a 2nd degree criminal murder charge, police officers across the United States have broad legal immunity against harms caused by their actions in the line of duty.

Constitutional Rights, Civil Liberties, and Section 1983 Lawsuits

You probably know that if you’re arrested, you must be informed of your Miranda rights (e.g., the right to remain silent). But suspects also have civil rights that must be upheld. These rights are guaranteed by the highest law of the land—the U.S. Constitution. For example, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process and equal protection under the law.

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983) ensures that the police and other state actors “shall be liable” to the person injured for “the deprivation of any rights.” The most common claims brought against police officers using Section 1983 are for:

  • Unreasonable/excess force
  • False arrest/false imprisonment
  • Malicious prosecution

Victims of civil rights violations who win a Section 1983 lawsuit can recover compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees. Compensatory, or “economic,” damages cover things like lost income and medical expenses that result from police misconduct, while punitive damages may be tacked on as extra compensation when the court finds police conduct to be especially harmful.

Qualified Immunity For Police and Public Officials

In a 1982 United States Supreme Court decision that impacts Section 1983 lawsuits, the Court ruled that government officials are entitled to a type of legal immunity known as qualified immunity. The Court said there is a need “to protect officials who are required to exercise discretion and the related public interest in encouraging the vigorous exercise of official authority.”

Although the original case that established qualified immunity was not related to police conduct, as government officials, police are covered by qualified immunity. In theory, fear of a lawsuit could prevent a police officer from enforcing the law. But critics argue that, in practice, qualified immunity gives police and other government officials a free pass to violate peoples’ civil rights without legal consequences.

As the Cato Institute explains, state officials can use the qualified immunity defense in section 1983 civil rights cases—even when they’ve broken the law.

“It’s not enough to show that your rights were violated. You also have to show that the defendant violated ‘clearly established law,’” says Cato’s Jay Schweikert.

This means that in a section 1983 civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must not only show harm, but also show a prior case with identical facts where the police practice was a constitutional violation. In other words, Schweikert says, “It’s quite common for courts to say, ‘Yes, your rights were violated. But we can’t find a case where anyone’s rights were violated in quite the same way. So you lose.’”

The Supreme Court could reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity if it decides to hear any of numerous cases dealing with excessive police force that have been submitted for review. Among those cases is one which involves a police officer unleashing a K9 on a suspect who was sitting with his hands in the air. Another involves police shooting a 10-year-old child while trying to shoot a suspect’s dog. And a third involves a man who died after police used a stun gun nine times on him as he was having a mental health episode.

Protect Your Civil Rights

Section 1983 lawsuits are complicated constitutional/civil rights and damages cases that should only be pursued with help from an experienced attorney. Graham Law’s personal injury lawyers represent individuals who have been injured by negligent and intentional acts, including excessive police force. We also represent people facing misdemeanor and felony criminal charges. For a free case review, please call 1-800-621-8585 or Contact Us.

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