Suing for Wrongful Arrest & Police Brutality (Q&A)
Q. I was arrested for a crime I did not commit due to a mistake in identity. During the arrest the officers broke my nose and tasered me with a taser gun. After trial, I was found innocent of all charges. What can I do about this injustice?
A. What you are alleging is that you were falsely arrested and imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted, and the victim of excessive force. All of these actions could form the basis of a lawsuit against the individual officer(s) and the municipality they work for. To succeed on these claims, there are a number of hurdles, all of which must be overcome before your case will even get to trial.
To prove your false arrest and false imprisonment claims, you must be able to prove that you were arrested and held in custody without probable cause. If the officers can demonstrate that they had probable cause to arrest you, they will likely defeat your claim. To show probable cause, the officers must establish that the facts available to them at the time were sufficient to lead a reasonable person to believe that you had committed a crime. For instance, if someone identified you as being the perpetrator of the crime, that could be sufficient to establish probable cause and justify your arrest, even if you are later acquitted of the charges.
To prevail on a malicious prosecution claim you must prove (1) that the original case was terminated in your favor (i.e., you were found not guilty); (2) that the officers played an active role in your criminal case, (3) that the officers did not have probable cause or reasonable grounds to support the original case, and (4) that the officers initiated or continued the case against you with an improper purpose. Each of these elements presents a challenge to the plaintiff. Not only must you prove the same elements of your false arrest claim, but you must also prove that the officers had some other malicious motive for arresting you, such as personal malice or hostility. Unless you can point to some facts to support your belief that the officers held a personal grudge, or arrested you for some reason other than the pursuit of justice, a malicious prosecution claim will probably fail.
Excessive force claims are usually filed in response to someone being beaten by police officers in the course of an arrest. A law enforcement officer has the right to use such force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances to make a lawful arrest. Whether force is reasonably necessary or excessive is measured by the force a reasonable and prudent law enforcement officer would use under the circumstances. If you were not resisting arrest, were handcuffed at the time you were tasered, or did not pose a threat to officers at the time of your arrest, then their use of the taser and physical force is likely unjustified and can (and should) be pursued in a civil rights lawsuit.
Civil rights cases have transformed a huge number of governmental institutions such as schools, prisons, mental health facilities, housing authorities, police departments, child welfare agencies, etc. These most basic of rights, such as the right to be free from an unlawful arrest or excessive force, secure our liberty and make the United States different from, and better than, other nations. When our civil rights are threatened, no matter if the threat comes from a law-breaker or one charged with the duty of enforcing the law, these rights must be defended. Hopefully, justice will be served in your case.