Civil rights violations by government officials can occur in many situations, but police misconduct may be the most familiar. Concerns over excessive force by police have mounted in recent years. Excessive force violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. Victims of excessive force by police can pursue a Section 1983 claim against the officer and potentially their employer. Section 1983 is a federal law (42 USC Section 1983) that allows citizens to hold state or local government officials liable for civil rights violations perpetrated while they are acting under color of law. Federal law enforcement officers may be sued in a Bivens action, which is a similar type of claim established by a US Supreme Court decision rather than a statute.
If a plaintiff sustained physical injuries due to excessive force, they can receive compensation for medical treatment for their injuries, as well as lost income while they were recovering. They also can receive compensation for pain and suffering and emotional distress. Even if a plaintiff did not incur financial losses like medical bills or lost income, they may still be able to receive compensation for non-economic forms of harm like pain and suffering.
Criminal vs. Civil Cases Based on Excessive Force
Excessive force by police may lead to criminal charges against an officer in addition to a Section 1983 claim. However, the outcome of a criminal case involving excessive force does not dictate the outcome of a Section 1983 claim based on the same incident. The burden of proof is lower in civil cases like Section 1983 claims, and different elements must be shown.
Proving an Excessive Force Claim
As noted above, the civil rights violation must have occurred while the officer was acting under color of law. A police officer generally acts under color of law whenever they are carrying out their official duties or acting in their official role. These include situations when an officer is making an arrest, asking questions after displaying their badge, or pursuing a suspect in a police car, among other examples. An officer who gets in a fight while they are off duty and out of uniform probably would not be sued in a Section 1983 claim, since this is not an abuse of their authority. A plaintiff could sue them under a theory such as battery without needing Section 1983 as a basis.
An excessive force claim often hinges on whether the amount of force used in the situation was necessary under the circumstances. This is a fact-specific inquiry that considers how a reasonable officer would have responded in the same situation, knowing the same information as the defendant. The threshold at which force becomes excessive increases if a suspect is resisting or fleeing arrest. Officers may be able to use greater force when pursuing a suspect if they reasonably believe that the suspect has committed a felony. An officer generally cannot use lethal force against a suspect unless they reasonably believe that they are faced with a risk of death or serious injury.
Does Guilt or Innocence Matter?
An officer cannot avoid liability under Section 1983 simply by showing that the plaintiff was guilty of the crime for which they were arrested. However, a plaintiff may have a better chance of success if they can show that they were innocent.
State laws vary regarding the legal standards and presumptions in excessive force cases. These often differ from standards in ordinary civil cases. For example, a plaintiff may need to prove their claim by clear and convincing evidence rather than the preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) standard, although they will not be held to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard from criminal cases.
Defenses to Excessive Force Claims
An officer sued for using excessive force might defend on the basis of justification. This means that there was a legal reason for them to use what seemed to be excessive force under the specific circumstances of the case. An officer has the burden of proving this defense.
The procedural defense of qualified immunity may shield an officer in a Section 1983 claim. This provides that an officer is liable only if they violated a clearly established right. Their conduct must have clearly violated the right. In some states, an officer also might have immunity for discretionary actions. But this protection often does not apply if an officer went beyond the scope of their duties, which could be argued in an excessive force case.