It is an unfortunate reality that many people throughout the country are treated unfairly by police officers, including some instances where officers use excessive physical force against citizens. Sometimes, this might occur in the context of an arrest, and sometimes, you may not be arrested, which will affect the next steps you need to take if you wish to assert your rights and file a complaint or a civil lawsuit against the officer who assaulted you. Below, we explain what your rights are after excessive force is used against you and how an attorney can help you achieve justice.
What Constitutes Excessive Use of Force by a Police Officer?
Although standards vary somewhat by state and jurisdiction, generally speaking, police are required to use no more force than necessary to protect themselves and the public. According to the Philadelphia Police Department’s “Use of Force Decision Chart,” for example, no force should be used unless an offender is “resisting and non-compliant” and the use of verbal commands and mere officer presence has not been successful in quelling them. In such a situation, the officers may be justified in using limited physical force such as grabbing the suspect and physically controlling their hands or using pepper spray to stop them. If force is used in a situation where you were being compliant, or more force than necessary was used in a situation where you were non-compliant but did not represent a likely physical threat, however, excessive use of force may have occurred.
If you behave in a way that demonstrates physically aggressive or assaultive behavior that presents an immediate likelihood of injury to yourself or others, Philadelphia officers are permitted to respond with what is known as “less lethal force,” which includes using a baton or an electronic control weapon like a taser. However, they may not use deadly force, such as a firearm, unless the officer has an “objectively reasonable belief” that there is an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to someone. If the officer uses deadly force where less lethal force was called for, this is likely an excessive use of force.
“Essentially, what constitutes excessive use of force can vary greatly depending on the context in which the force was used and whether it was in response to force or threats of force by the suspect,” says Lloyd Long, founding partner of The Law Offices Of Lloyd Long.
“If you believe force was used on you when you were being compliant, or the amount of force used against you was out of line with your actions, the best thing you can do is contact a skilled, local criminal defense attorney who can review the specifics of your case and recommend appropriate action.”
Your Rights When Excessive Force is Used Against You By an Officer
Depending on whether the use of excessive force accompanied an arrest or citation, you will need first to deal with the potential criminal consequences of your arrest before turning your attention to any civil case against the officers. You always have the right to file a complaint with the police as well as a lawsuit alleging excessive force if you can show damages. However, it is best to first consult with an experienced civil attorney who can advise you whether or not they believe the suit has a chance of success based on the background of your situation and their experience.
First and foremost, if the excessive use of force occurred before, during, or after an arrest, you need to deal with the underlying criminal charges against you and the fact that you will be held in jail. If the force used against you results in serious injuries, you may be transported to a hospital or the medical unit in the closest detention center. In Philadelphia, your preliminary arraignment and bail hearing, where the judge decides if you can be released or must remain in custody until the case is resolved, will occur no more than 72 hours after your arrest and booking. In other states, the timeframe may be even shorter. For this reason, it is vital that you or a loved one reach out to a skilled defense attorney as soon after your arrest as possible, so that your attorney has time to prepare for and appear with you at this important hearing.
In some cases, we may be able to use the alleged excessive use of force committed against you as a bargaining chip in our plea negotiations or as evidence in your favor at trial. In such instances, we will likely advise you to file an official complaint with the police regarding the officer’s violent behavior toward you. In other scenarios, however, it may be best for your case for us as your criminal defense attorneys not to even broach the subject of the assault and simply to focus on getting the charges against you dismissed.
After your criminal case is over (or as soon as possible after the incident occurred if no criminal charges are filed against you), your attention can focus on the possibility of a civil suit. Typically, you will use a different attorney for this case than your criminal defense attorney, someone who specializes in civil cases of this sort. In terms of criminal charges against the officer for assault, this is a rarity, and is up to the charging discretion of the local prosecutor. Usually, a civil suit is the best route to go to get some remuneration and bring attention to the matter. As noted above, before filing a civil suit, it is important to file an official complaint with the police department if this is the normal procedure.
An experienced attorney for these types of cases will be able to analyze the specifics of what occurred to you, collect evidence and witness statements, and assess what damages you may be eligible for, based on your physical injuries as well as emotional suffering. There is a very specific manner these types of lawsuits against officers must be filed due to complex state and federal law regarding officer immunity. Furthermore, the specific cause of action may differ depending on the circumstances. Your attorney can try to negotiate a settlement, or, if you wish, fight for damages to be awarded at trial.