Something went terribly wrong. You were either wrongfully searched, detained, arrested, charged, beaten, handcuffed, tasered, prosecuted, had your privacy invaded, been singled out due to racially motivated misconduct, or have been conspired against to deny your Civil Rights.
Now you want to sue the police officer or department that has done this to you or someone you know.
What’s your status right now?
Before you start looking for a lawyer, you must stop and think about where you stand at the moment. If you have been formally arrested and awaiting your first court date, it’s because the police have decided to forward your case to the district attorney’s office so that you will be prosecuted. If that’s the case, you will have to overcome this hurdle before you even consider filing a civil lawsuit. There is a long list of things you will have to be doing for the next few months.
First, you must document as much evidence as you possibly can. A good way to do this is to write down everything you remember. Your memory is fading with every day that passes. If there were any witnesses to what happened, their memories are also fading. Get a hold of them and ask them to journal what they remember as well. Likewise, were there any cameras or video recording that took place? Get a hold of these recordings since you will want as many pieces of evidence that could help shed light on the matter.
Second, if you’ve been hurt you will need to seek some kind of medical assessment or treatment. It does you no good to continue to suffer from our injuries or even make them worse. Make sure our injuries are well-documented with our physician or medical clinic so that you may use them in the future.
Third, choose wisely in having a capable criminal defense attorney to handle your case (preferably one that also handles police misconduct cases). This is crucial since you will setting the stage for the civil case early one. After all, since you are now facing criminal charges–the game has just begun. Many potential civil rights lawsuits never saw the light of day because the criminal defense cases were mishandled or failed to provide the kind of victory that was needed to get to the next step.
What are your legal issues exactly?
It’s one thing to browse the web and try to find how much money somebody recovered from a police department because the handcuffs were too tight–but remember that you rarely get the whole story. So many people get the wrong idea as to what is an issue you can sue. For that many lawyers find themselves screening out really bad cases that have no merit. So it’s best to talk to a lawyer that can identify if you have a serious civil rights issue. Here are some reasons to consider whether or not you may have a case.
Reasons for Suing the Police
False Arrest or Detention: under very specific circumstances, a police officer may only detain you (keep you from leaving) or arrest you so long as there is probable cause. If you were stopped or arrested for false or illegal purposes, you may have a claim against the police.
Illegal Search: the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution provides that a person may not be searched without probable cause. There are circumstances where you may be searched with or without a warrant–but if there was no legal cause to do so, your rights have been violated.
Excessive Force (physical brutality): only an amount of force that is reasonable under the circumstances can be used to effectuate an arrest, prevent an escape, or overcome resistance. Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt (9th Cir. 2002) 276 F.3rd 1125).
Invasion of Privacy: a broad definition and concept…but generally, a person as a cause of action (“claim”) if police have unlawfully searched or seized or infringed upon the personal liberty or property rights of another. Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538, Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167.
Malicious Prosecution: a police officer may be responsible for violating your rights if they were providing false information to the prosecuting attorney against you.
Resisting Arrest: while it is not a violation of your civil rights to be charged for this offense, it may be however if the reason for the arrest was unlawful.
Conspiracy to Violate Civil Rights: a very serious accusation, conspiracy claims mean that a combination of two or more people were acting in concert to commit an act (whether lawful or unlawful) to inflict a wrong or injury to someone else and results in damage. Hampton v. Hanrahan, 446 U.S. 754.
Defamation: not a usual claim, but courts have suggested that someone can recover damages from a public entity if you have suffered public ridicule or stigma i addition to some other infringement of your rights.
Retaliatory Prosecution: common in many drug cases, someone can be a victim of retaliation when they were engaged in constitutionally protected conduct and that their conduct was a motivating factor in what caused the police officer’s actions.
Deadly Force: there are countless ways in which deadly force is warranted. However, given the circumstances of the given situation, it could be unreasonable and illegal to cause lethal force to a suspect (which can be done with any insrument: taser, choke hold, firearm, vehicle, police dogs, etc.).
First Amendment Rights: as complicated as the First Amendment itself, officers can be sued if you can show that you were engaged in protected speech and that the conduct somehow had a connection with the police retaliating against you.
Racially Motivated Conduct: much like an employer violating a person’s civil rights, officers may also be held liable if you can effectively show that a three-part equal protection test has been satisfied. First, you must show that race was a motivating factor in the racially discriminatory action by law enforcement. Second, the government will have to articulate a non-racially motivated reason for their action. Finally, you must prove the discrimination actually occurred.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, only a general overview of the more common causes of action against police departments. You may have a very specific legal issue that is not covered here and finding out what that is would be best served by having an attorney look it over.
How to Secure your Position in Filing a Civil Case
Before you run to either a State Superior Court or a Federal District Court, the law requires you to first file a government tort claim in California. This is the case for most causes of actions against public entities–which includes police departments.
California Tort Claims Act
The California Tort Claims Act is covered under the Government Code sections 810-966.6. Within this portion of the code, Section 910 requires a person to file a claim with the governmental entity that the person is seeking damages against. This is a very important stage in suing the government and should NOT be undertaken alone. The assistance of an experienced attorney in the area is critical.
The Six Month Rule
You must also keep in mind that this government tort claim must be filed within six (6) months of the injury. Failure to file in a timely manner will ruin your chances of any compensation from your injury. If done correctly, within about 4-8 weeks you or your lawyer will receive a response either accepting your claim or denying it. After receiving the denial, you will have a specific amount of time where you must file your lawsuit. Different time periods depend on your legal issues and how you chose to file your claim. Consult with your lawyer for how to proceed after that.
Fighting Your Criminal Case
Securing a victory in your criminal case can not be overstated. Local governments have no interest in handing out money to people who are hurt by their officers–especially when they believe and stand by their public service employees who have sworn to keep the piece in their communities. Your criminal case is essential to the potential outcome of the civil suit. If everything goes the way it should, the truth will come to light during the jury trial and you will have yourself a very clear view of what challenges your civil case may bring up ahead.
Filing in State or Federal Court
This article in no way suggests which is better or which you should choose. Nevertheless, you must be informed that Civil Rights lawsuits can be filed in either State or Federal court. There are very different rules that govern the disclosure of evidence, witnesses, experts, exhibits, and many other factors that will determine your chances at recovery. Bottom line, you highly advised to seek legal counsel for this stage of suing the police.
A Final Note
As was mentioned earlier, there is no shortage of people who believe that they will recover millions of dollars from the police department that stepped on their toes. Every internet search result or news article that suggests you can sue the police and get money for it must be taken with a grain of salt for one reason above all: You will never know what the whole story was.
Lawsuits include thousands of documents, many witnesses, hundreds of hours of legal work, and lots of resources you may not be able to imagine. Anyone who claims even a simple lawsuit is easy to handle has either never gone through the ordeal or has a very twisted perspective on the court system.
This post is intended to give the reader a broad overview of what challenges lie ahead in suing the police. Therefore, seeking an experienced lawyer that handles this very complicated and difficult cases cannot be stressed enough.
Suing the Police: Now Trending
LA County Sheriff’s testify in jail abuse and excessive force trial. The courtroom is presented with various internal jail videos showing inmates being tased multiple times and others being kicked while on the ground dozens of times without any resistance.
A Chicago woman sues the police after a video shows her being unnecessarily thrown into a concrete bench face first in jail during her DUI arrest. The video conveys a brutal portrayal of the abuse and defies justifcation or provocation.