Pennsylvania law permits police officers to use force against citizens while acting in the line of duty. While making an arrest, for instance, an officer “is justified in the use of any force which he believes to be necessary to effect the arrest and of any force which he believes to be necessary to defend himself or another from bodily harm while making the arrest.”
An officer may even use deadly force “when he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself” or to the person he is arresting, or when the officer believes that the “force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape” and “the person to be arrested has committed or attempted a forcible felony or is attempting to escape and possesses a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury unless arrested without delay.”
In other words, police officers in Pennsylvania have enormous authority to cause physical harm to citizens. However, that authority is not unlimited. As members of the public, we have the inalienable right to demand that police officers only exercise their powers with care and prudence. Police officers who fail to live up to that standard must be held accountable to the citizens whom the officers harm, as well as to the public at large. Victims of excessive police violence can do that by pursuing an excessive force lawsuit with the help of an experienced police brutality attorney.
What Is Excessive Force?
As the language quoted above shows, police have wide latitude to use force against a citizen when making an arrest. Other sections of the same law linked above give police similar authority to use force in preventing an escape, a suicide, or commission of a crime. The language of the law, in basing the use of force on whether a police officer “believes” the use of force is necessary, leaves lots of room for uncertainty and officer discretion. You might even think of it as a loophole so big that the police can do anything that they want.
However, that is not the case. Police officers cannot just inflict whatever violence they want on a civilian. The law does restrict their actions. Here are some ways it does that:
- Police cannot use force when they lack a basis to believe that a crime has been committed. Wearing a uniform is not a license to punch or kick civilians, to draw guns on civilians, to use a taser on civilians, to throw civilians to the ground, to handcuff civilians, or to threaten civilians with bodily injury.
- Police can only use force when making a lawful arrest. If the police know the arrest is not lawful (such as an arrest for exercising a constitutional right to peaceable assembly or to free speech), then their use of force is never justified.
- Police cannot use deadly force when there is no threat to the officer’s life, and the person has not committed or attempted to commit a violent felony, does not possess a deadly weapon, or does not endanger the lives of others.
- Police cannot use deadly force to stop the commission of a crime unless there is a “substantial” risk that the suspect endangers others’ lives and the officer does not substantially endanger the lives of innocent persons by using that force.
A police officer’s use of force in violation of rules above is, by definition, excessive. These are just examples, however, so even if you cannot neatly fit what happened to you or a loved one into one of the three bullet-points above, you may still have a valid claim for police excessive force. Speak with an experienced civil rights attorney to learn more.
Signs of Excessive Force
Suffering injuries at the hands of a police officer can feel shocking and traumatic. Some victims of police violence even question whether they are at fault for their injuries, if they should have been more polite, if they should have refrained from speaking out about something they believed was wrong, or if they should have followed officers’ orders, regardless of how unreasonable. We understand those feelings, and we are here to tell you that they are natural reactions to an unnatural situation, but that does not necessarily mean they are correct.
Every use of police force against a civilian involves a calculation of who-did-what. Nothing is ever particularly black-and-white. The police often have their perspective on what happened, and the civilian victim often has a completely different story. Some signs that police used excessive force against you or a loved one include the following:
- A routine encounter with police, such as getting pulled over for a traffic violation, ending in violence against a citizen.
- Police punching or kicking someone who is restrained on the ground, or handcuffed, or otherwise in police custody and control.
- Police use of force against someone who is too young, or too old, or too weak, or too small, or too mentally incompetent, to pose a danger to them or others.
- Police shouting “stop resisting!” over and over while making an arrest when the person being arrested is not, in fact, resisting at all.
- Police immediately resorting to violence in an encounter instead of giving warnings first.
- Police barging into a home without permission or a warrant.
Again, these are just some examples. Police excessive force can happen in lots of other settings, too. As a general matter, if your gut tells you that a civilian—whether someone who was arrested or merely a bystander—has sustained injuries at the hands of police that seem totally out of proportion to the situation that led to the encounter, then in all likelihood that police used excessive force in violation of the victim’s constitutional and statutory rights.
Suing for Excessive Force
Police use of excessive force constitutes a violation of the civil rights of the citizen against whom force has been used. Civil rights are rights guaranteed to citizens under the United States Constitution, the constitutions of the states where citizens live, and federal and state laws. At their most basic level, these are the rights that our country’s founders and leaders designed to protect citizens from abuses of governmental authority.
Police who violate a citizen’s civil rights by using excessive force can, and should, be held accountable through a civil rights lawsuit. This is a type of lawsuit that claims that a police officer acting under the color of law did something prohibited by federal or state laws. The use of excessive force can represent a violation of numerous fundamental rights, including rights to freedom of speech and assembly, rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, rights to due process, and rights to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, to name just a few.
Federal law gives citizens the right to seek monetary damages and other forms of relief from the government in cases in which a government official—which includes a police officer—violates a citizen’s civil rights. That law, as well as certain other laws that address specific types of abuses, such as racial discrimination, give citizens a powerful weapon to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
In a civil rights lawsuit for excessive force, victims and their families may recover compensation to pay for medical costs, pain and suffering, and other harms caused by the trauma they’ve suffered. No lawyer can tell you ahead of time how much money a civil rights lawsuit might obtain, but some plaintiffs have been known to recover substantial sums of money.
How a Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
Suing a government entity, like a police department, is no small undertaking. It takes bravery and perseverance on the part of the victim, and skill and discipline on the part of the victim’s lawyer. That is why it is important for victims of excessive police force to seek the services of an experienced civil rights attorney to help them pursue justice, accountability, and compensation.
Here are some of the ways an experienced civil rights lawyer (as compared to other types of lawyers) can help guide you and your family through the process of taking legal action for police use of excessive force.
Police who use excessive force against a citizen often try to justify their conduct through a variety of explanations: the person was resisting arrest, is lying about police conduct, or appeared to be holding a weapon. In the age of smartphones with digital cameras, many of these excuses have begun to ring especially hollow (although, truth be told, civil rights lawyers and communities impacted by police violence have long been extremely skeptical of these excuses).
Nevertheless, a citizen who raises the alarm about having been victimized by a police officer will immediately become the target of an investigation, usually one conducted by the very police department whose officer committed the abuse. To avoid the investigation becoming a whitewash and an exercise in victim-blaming, citizens who have suffered the trauma of excessive force by police should have an experienced civil rights lawyer by their side to help them navigate the investigation process. A civil rights lawyer can evaluate the investigation, advise the client on whether and how to participate in it, and may even decide that the victim needs to conduct a separate investigation to make sure all of the facts come out.
Managing Public Attention
Make no mistake: alleging excessive use of force by a police officer will make you a target, and the police will deploy all of their tricks to try to smear you and to make it look as if you deserved the violence you endured. Civil rights cases tend to attract attention from the press and public. Police may even respond to allegations of excessive force through the media, giving the police department a platform to try to shape the storyline to fit its officer’s version of events and to escape accountability for its own wrongdoing.
Be sure you have an experienced civil rights lawyer on your team to help you fight back against those smears and to protect your rights. A lawyer can help you decide when and how to engage with the public directly, or through the press, to tell your side of the story. On the flip side, a lawyer can also help protect your privacy when you need it.
Unfair as it is, calling the police out on their excessive use of force puts you in the spotlight. Having an experienced civil rights lawyer to stand there with you gives you the power and protection you need to see justice done and to obtain the compensation you deserve, without falling prey to public attempts to blame you for your own injuries.
Pursuing Cases in and out of Court
Finally, an experienced civil rights lawyer can help by preparing, filing, and pursuing your actual lawsuit both in and out of court. We say in and out because many lawsuits end with a settlement long before they ever see the inside of a courtroom. For a variety of reasons, however, other cases do not settle and instead go the distance, ending with a trial before a judge or jury.
In choosing a civil rights lawyer for your police excessive force case, pick one who has experience handling both the outside-the-courtroom and inside-the-courtroom aspects of a civil rights abuse case. Perhaps more so than in most lawsuits, an experienced civil rights lawyer has the skill to understand and navigate the sometimes delicate—but always critically important—interplay between how a case rolls out in the public eye and how it gets handled when laws, judges, and juries get involved.
Contact a Civil Rights Lawyer Today
Police use of excessive force represents one of the worst violations of the trust between citizens and their governments. It undermines our community, damages families, and ruins lives. If the trauma of a police officer’s use of excessive force suddenly disrupts your life, then contact an experienced Pennsylvania civil rights lawyer right away. Time is limited for you to take action, so don’t wait to reach out.
The Zeiger Firm
1500 John F. Kennedy Blvd, Suite 620A,
Philadelphia, PA 19102