By: KGD Law
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Suing Police is Difficult Because of Qualified Immunity
There’s a good chance that if you get detained or arrested, the experience is unpleasant. You may feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and angry. You may even feel like you have a basis for a lawsuit. While many people sue police officers and their departments for their behavior while wearing the badge, it can be difficult to sue the police because of qualified immunity.
What is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified immunity is immunity from lawsuits. You cannot sue a police officer or police department for activities that are within the scope of his or her job duties. This federal law also applies to government officials.
Qualified Immunity is Not Full Immunity
The qualified immunity that the law gives police and other government officials does not allow them to blatantly break the law. The courts will still hold them liable for breaking federal laws or violating constitutional rights.
Instead, qualified immunity protects police from being sued for detaining or arresting an individual for reasonable suspicions. For instance, a person may suffer discomfort being detained for theft due to matching the description of a perpetrator. This is unlikely to be a violent detention without a positive identification or resistance, but the officer cannot be sued if he or she does it correctly. Many apprehensions are made following a chase or with fear of violence, so some level of mishap is understood. The job is stressful, and split-second decisions can result in mistakes and poorly made decisions.
However, even if a person is guilty, there is no reason that they should be abused once detained or during any part of the encounter. The police do not have the right to infringe on a person’s civil rights. All of this is within reason. The courts have to look at lawsuits on a case-by-case scenario to see if qualified immunity applies.
The 4th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America prohibits excessive force and unreasonable search and seizure. A police officer must have probable cause to search you or seize your property without a warrant, which also requires probable cause.
The Founding Fathers did not define probable cause within the Constitution. It is a generally accepted legal term that is defined as the reasonable belief that a crime was committed by the person being searched. Understandably, “reasonable belief” has come into question multiple times in lawsuits.
Lawmakers have written multiple civil rights into the law that protect against police brutality and misconduct. These include false arrest or imprisonment and malicious treatment. It is important to remember that entire police forces are generally not the problem. The police forces are made up of normal people. Some will make mistakes, and some will commit crimes. The power that comes with the position makes it essential for the courts to protect the civil liberties of its people. This includes equality and non-discriminatory measures.
Chapter 776 in Florida Statutes covers “Justifiable Use of Force” by law enforcement. It justifies anything that must be done to protect the officer while arresting another person if he or she believes harm is imminent. This is true if a criminal has escaped, a suspect is fleeing, or if the officer believes that the person in question will harm others if allowed to escape. The courts won’t hold the officers liable if they use weapons, such as less-than-lethal ammunition. However, they must use it in good faith.
As you can see, the law intends to be fair to law enforcement officers, but it also intends to be fair to victims of police brutality. Still, most juries judge in favor of police when lawsuits are concerned.
Examples of Florida Lawsuits Against Police
Excessive Force and Falsifying a Report
In the spring of 2019, a Florida woman filed a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade Police Department and some of its officers whom she accused of falsely arresting her. A man called her a “whore” while she was walking down the street, so she picked a plant out of his yard and threw it at him. The man pulled a gun. When the police arrived, they arrested her. This involved taking her to the ground violently. Most people would argue from the video that it was brutal. The police claimed she was belligerent, but the police department suspended the officer after the video. The police later arrested the man with the gun.
The officer faces the charge of lying on a police report. He charged her with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, which was false. Now, the officer also faces the charge of misdemeanor battery. The additional charge of lying on the report is a felony.
The woman who was wrongfully and brutally arrested filed a subsequent civil rights suit.
In December 2016, the parents of a mentally ill man sued because an officer shot their son after the parents reported that he was suicidal. The officer shot him in the back and then released his dog on him. Video footage showed that the officer did not engage in properly warning the man. The video cleared the path for a successful lawsuit. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office agreed to a $500,000 settlement. They also paid $95,000 to the officer because he had complained earlier that the police dogs were being abused and claimed that he was wrongfully fired from his position at the department. The settlement to the officer reveals how complicated lawsuits surrounding police action can be.
Benefits Of Lawsuits Toward Police and Their Departments
Lawsuits offer multiple benefits toward the public and plaintiffs aside from simple compensation. The power that comes with qualified immunity can lead to less accountability of individual officers despite departmental oversight. Successful lawsuits send a message to all officers that there are serious repercussions for illegal use of force and abuse of power. This can act as a deterrent.
Another benefit of lawsuits directed toward police and their departments is that it results in better training. This is because it identifies systemic problems, such as discrimination, that are often unintentional but have severe consequences.
Lastly, lawsuits toward the police and their departments bring the justice system full circle in providing actual justice for the civilian. The courts must hold police accountable just like they do everyone else. This is stated with the understanding that they have unique circumstances that require different levels of force. However, the law protects them with qualified immunity.
Gather Evidence and Get a Lawyer with Experience
If you have been a victim of police misconduct, it is important you gather any evidence you can. Eyewitnesses and video recordings can mean the difference between a successful lawsuit and a police officer getting away with murder. With that said, it can also reveal the good work that so many law enforcement officers engage in. Evidence will tell a lawyer and jury if the officer actually acted in contrast with the scope of his or her work.
Lastly, if you are going to successfully sue the police, it is good to have a civil rights lawyer with experience in these types of cases. Your chances of winning your case are much higher if your lawyer knows how to handle the details of civil rights cases.
If you have questions about a personal injury lawsuit, contact Kirshner, Groff, and Diaz. We have decades of personal injury experience. You’ll speak to an actual lawyer immediately with no obligation or upfront costs.