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Can you sue for police misconduct?

Law enforcement officers have a dangerous job protecting communities and keeping people safe. The people who serve as police officers have a difficult job, and many of them are professionals who treat citizens fairly and equally. However, some officers abuse that power and dishonor their uniforms. Police officers are not above the law, and if you’ve been a victim of police abuse, you might wonder if you can sue the police. Use this guide to learn the answer to this question and others involving police abuse.

What Is Police Abuse?

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Police abuse involves any type of misconduct or misrepresentation of power. Also called abuse of power, this encompasses the many ways that officers can take advantage of their powerful position in our society. Some examples of police abuse involve officers who treat citizens with unwarranted brutality, engage in corrupt acts that put innocent citizens’ lives at stake, or shoot people in response to little or no provocation.

What Types of Legal Protection Do Police Officers Have?

When any of these instances occur, you might wonder what victims or surviving loved ones can do. Federal and state laws protect citizens from abuse and other violations that occur from government officials. Victims of police abuse can sue the officers individually as well as the local governments that employ them.

Also, police officers have their own legal protections, including qualified immunity. This particular protection allows them a form of sovereign immunity in which they are held accountable only if they violate someone’s rights as “clearly established” through existing case law. However, qualified immunity does not apply if there’s proof that the police officer acted willfully in an unlawful manner.

What Kind of Case Can You Bring Against a Police Officer?

One type of case you might want to pursue is filing a civil lawsuit. Instead of focusing on whether the officer was in fear for his or her safety, the jury involved in the civil lawsuit focuses on whether the officer’s actions satisfied specific civil lawsuit elements. Many times, even if a criminal jury acquits an officer, a civil jury finds the victim or the family of the victim deserves compensation for the officer’s actions.

There are also different types of categories to consider when filing a lawsuit against a police officer. Common reasons for filing a suit include emotional distress, misconduct, and rights violations.

Emotional Distress

Generally, you can sue the police for infliction of emotional distress if an officer recklessly or intentionally acts in a way that causes emotional injury or causes emotional distress due to a negligent act. The officer must have conducted extreme and outrageous behavior that doesn’t adhere to society’s norms. The courts might decide whether the following occurred:

  • The officer knew the victim was susceptible to emotional distress.
  • There was a pattern of conduct.
  • The officer was in a position of power.


Police abuse and violations against citizens pertain to misconduct. The most common misconduct claims include the following:

  • Discrimination. This might involve making decisions based on gender, race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. You must show there’s a pattern of this type of behavior, and only one occurrence isn’t enough.
  • False arrest. Also known as a Fourth Amendment violation, this occurs when the police officer searches a home without a valid warrant or arrests someone without probable cause. You must show that police didn’t have probable cause or evidence to issue an arrest.
  • Excessive force. You must show that the police used unreasonable force in dealing with the victim and that the officer could have accomplished this goal without using as much force. Usually, the victim suffers serious injury or death.
  • Harassment. This can include numerous types of behavior on the part of the police, such as racial profiling, illegally surveilling, or making sexist, racial, or homophobic comments. Just like with discrimination, you have to prove there’s a pattern of this type of behavior.

Violating Rights

Although police officers might be immune from being criminally charged for failing to perform duties imposed by state law, the officers might be sued in a federal civil suit if they violate a citizen’s federal constitutional rights. This type of suit falls under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which prohibits anyone from acting under the authority of the law from violating another person’s civil rights under the U.S Constitution.

In addition to filing a lawsuit against the officer, you can file a claim against the department with the internal affairs section of the police department or the Department of Justice (DOJ). From there, the DOJ can determine whether to investigate further or file its own criminal or civil case against the law enforcement agency.

What Types of Damages Are You Entitled To?

When you file a lawsuit against the police, it’s not an easy case to win. Certain police departments lack transparency, and you might have difficulty gathering evidence about the officers you’re suing. If you are successful, you might be entitled to some of the following damages:

  • Economic. If the courts found the police guilty of misconduct, you might receive monetary compensation or damages as a result of the violation of your civil rights.  The categories that fall into this section include lost income and medical expenses.
  • Non-Economic or General. This involves intangible losses or those that don’t have a specific cost associated with them. These types of damages include pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and mental and emotional distress.
  • Punitive. The court might also determine that the police officer and department must pay punitive damages as punishment. This type of punishment is intended to deter the police and department from engaging in this type of behavior again.

Many victims believe that they don’t have any recourse against officers who abuse their power. At Lem Garcia Law, we are committed to helping injured police abuse victims seek justice and receive full compensation for their injuries. If you believe you’ve been a victim of police abuse, contact us for a free no-obligation consultation. We will let you know if you have a case and guide you through the process.