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Your right: fighting police brutality

Police officers have a duty to protect the communities they serve, promote public welfare, and enforce the laws of their jurisdiction. To fulfill these duties, they are granted a large degree of freedom to exercise their judgment in the use of force while enforcing the law. Because of chaotic situations, insufficient training, poor judgment, or even malicious intent, police officers may cross the line, resulting in unnecessary personal injury to citizens.

Though government agencies and employees are protected for the most part under a theory called “sovereign immunity”, citizens still have the right to pursue legal action through certain exemptions. Read on to learn more about excessive force and your right to sue.

When police use force that crosses the line

Police officers are only allowed to use the degree of force proportionate to a given circumstance. Basically, they must exercise good judgment on the use of force needed to control a situation, make an arrest, or protect themselves or the public from imminent harm. Even when a situation calls for force, officers are still required to consider the physical safety of their target.

Determining whether the use of force was excessive can be murky as events vary and individual judgment is subjective. Generally, judges or juries must consider what a reasonable person with an officer’s experiences and training would have deemed necessary under the circumstances.

When a suspect resists arrest, it is reasonable to assume that a police officer will apply force to subdue the target. If a suspect is compliant, however, it’s safe to say force is completely unnecessary. Let’s look at an example of excessive force in a situation that is not so black and white:

Two police officers are patrolling an area late at night and witness a person punch someone else in the face. Upon seeing the flashing police lights, the suspect flees, forcing the officers to pursue on foot. Once they catch up, the target swings on the officers instigating one cop to use a chokehold while their partner cuffs the suspect. After the suspect is clearly subdued, the officer continues to apply the chokehold until the suspect passes out.

The police officer’s use of force was justifiable up to the point the suspect was handcuffed. However, because he continued the chokehold after the target was clearly subdued and caused the suspect to pass out, a judge would probably consider the force unwarranted. This is only one of many examples when force may be deemed excessive. Excessive force claims are always considered on a case by case basis.

Filing a claim against a government agency

In general, government agencies cannot be held liable for personal injuries or damages arising from the act or omissions of public institutions or employees under the theory of “sovereign immunity”.

However, agents of the law- whether local police officers, state sheriffs, or FBI agents- and the municipalities employing them may be held civilly liable for instances of excessive force. Most civil suits will fall under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants citizens protection from undue seizures, including seizure of a person. Section 1983 of the US Code also instructs any agent of the law against the violation of a citizen’s constitutional right.

While citizens are theoretically protected from abuse of power, your right to sue a government agency is complicated and you should seek the advice of an experienced injury lawyer.

If your claim is valid, you must follow a strict procedure that differs from traditional personal injury suits brought against private citizens or institutions. You must first file a “Notice of Claim” with the appropriate government agency. This claim is not a lawsuit and merely informs the agency of your intent to sue.

Per California law, you must file a “Notice of Claim” within 6 months of the date of injury or you may forever lose your right to sue. The agency must then either accept or deny your claim within 45 days of receipt. If your claim is denied by the agency, you can then file a civil claim or lawsuit. You must do so within 6 months of receiving notice of denial. If you never receive a rejection letter, you have up to two years to file your suit- but don’t count on it, the state takes claims very seriously.

Excessive force is wrong regardless of intentions or even whether the victim was found guilty of the crime. As a private citizen, you have the right to file a suit against police officers using undue force. Taking on the government can be intimidating, but having the right lawyer by your side can provide you peace of mind. If you’ve been the victim of excessive force, call our aggressive attorneys at Crane Flores, LLP anytime, day or night, at (805) 628-4967.