Police Misconduct: the Constitutional Right to be Free from Excessive Force

Posted by Lauren Freidenberg

When police violate our civil rights by using excessive force, deadly and dangerous consequences can ensue. For those who are not killed, victims of police brutality often suffer from life-altering disabilities such as traumatic brain injuries, emotional distress, and other catastrophic injuries.

Overview of the Fourth Amendment

Under the Fourth Amendment , anyone in the United States, citizen or not, has the constitutional right to be free from excessive force by police officers, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrol officers, federal agents, and other law enforcement officials.

The Fourth Amendment says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

While there is no specific language about excessive force in the Fourth Amendment, the United States Supreme Court explained how it protects all individuals in the United States from the use of excessive force in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 in 1989.

What is police excessive force?

Excessive force by a law enforcement officer is any type of force that is objectively unreasonable and/or unnecessary under the circumstances. Whether an officer’s use of force is considered unreasonable or excessive under the law is determined by an assessment of the type and amount of force used against the legitimate need for that force. The determination of whether the force used was excessive boils down to the facts and circumstances related to the use of force and not the intent (improper or not) or motivation by the officer who used the force.

When determining whether the force used against an individual violated an individual’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, courts consider the following non-exhaustive factors:

  • The severity of the alleged crime
  • The availability of alternative methods to effectuate an arrest or overcome resistance
  • Whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the officers’ or public’s safety
  • Whether the individual was armed
  • Whether the individual was suffering from mental illness or emotional distress
  • Whether the individual was resisting or evading arrest

Examples of police excessive force that may infringe on an individual’s civil rights:

  • Hitting, kicking, or employing force onto an individual when they are restrained in handcuffs and compliant
  • Lethal force: shooting someone with a service weapon who does not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to law enforcement officials or others
  • When an officer witnesses excessive use of force and fails to intervene despite having the opportunity to do so

Can I sue the police for excessive force?

Yes, individuals can sue a police officer, their supervisor, and in some cases, the municipality when an officer has violated someone’s constitutional rights. While it is possible to bring a civil suit for excessive force or some other type of police brutality; these cases are often very complicated and hard to win because of the doctrine of qualified immunity. Additionally, civil rights cases are subject to a statute of limitations. Accordingly, it is best to consult a local attorney as soon as possible after the incident.

MacDonald Hoague & Bayless has experience bringing claims against law enforcement agencies across the state of Washington. If you or a loved one was the victim of police excessive force, contact us today.

MacDonald Hoague & Bayless has been a leader in civil rights litigation for more than 70 years 

MacDonald Hoague & Bayless was founded in 1952 and has established itself as a national leader in civil rights litigation over the decades. In addition to representing individuals for prominent civil rights causes over the decades such as conscientious objectors in the 1960s, our firm has a long history of providing quality representation to underserved client populations, including refugees, victims of police misconduct, inmates on death row, and prisoners challenging unconstitutional prison conditions.

Our Seattle civil rights lawyers are dedicated to civil rights in both our personal and professional lives. Among our attorneys are past presidents of the ACLU of Washington and board members of the ACLU of Washington, the national ACLU, and Legal Voice. We are proud to have served as cooperating attorneys for the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Civil rights attorney, Lauren Freidenberg, was on the executive board for the American Constitution Society - San Diego Lawyer Chapter, and has been active in the National Lawyers Guild local chapters since 2016.

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