Civil rights are the rights designed to protect individuals from unequal treatment under the law. Every citizen has the right to be treated the same as every other citizen. Civil rights law largely focuses on the enforceable rights, protections, and liberties granted to individuals through federal legislation.

Civil rights lawyers work to ensure that people are treated equally, while protecting individuals from overly intrusive government conduct. Violations of an individual’s civil rights that cause an injury may give rise to a legal claim for damages.

Thousands of people are arrested in Philadelphia each year. However, some arrests are unjustified and possibly illegal, and almost all unwarranted arrests have devastating consequences. At times, when executing an arrest, police may use violence or excessive force, in violation of individuals’ civil rights.

In 2015, the Washington Post created a real-time police shooting database to record and analyze fatal shootings by on-duty police officers across the United States. According to the data, since 2015, law enforcement officers have shot and killed an average of three people per day. In 2019, there were 1,004 reported fatal police shootings in America.

Civil Rights Law

Civil rights laws stem from the Constitution’s “Bill of Rights,” and have been addressed by federal and state statutes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Subsequently, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was enacted. This Act protects the civil rights of employees prohibiting discrimination by employers.

Other federal civil rights laws include the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The protections provided by civil rights laws are further developed by court decisions interpreting the meaning and application of federal and state statutes.

In addition to federal statutes, states have also enacted civil rights laws. For example, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act prohibits unlawful discriminatory practices in employment and housing because of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, or the use of guide or support animal. The Act covers all public employers and private employers with four or more employees. The state legislature enacted the law to ensure employees are given equal employment opportunities so they may enjoy the standard of living they deserve.

Civil Rights Law and Police Misconduct

A primary purpose of the nation’s civil rights laws is to protect citizens from abuses by the government, including police misconduct. Federal laws prohibiting police brutality assert that an officer’s use of excessive force may be a violation of the injured individual’s civil rights. Police officers are generally afforded broad discretion when determining how to carry out their duty to protect and serve the community.

The Constitution and other laws, however, place limits on an officer’s use of force while performing their job duties. Law enforcement officers must respect the rights of individuals when enforcing the law. When the officer’s actions go beyond these limits and cause an injury, the injured victim may have a claim for damages.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was originally enacted to combat oppressive conduct by vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy organizations. Today, the Act makes it illegal for anyone acting under state law, including police officers, to deprive another person of their legal rights. A provision of the Act provides individuals with the ability to sue the government for civil rights violations.

Common Civil Rights Claims Against Police Officers

False Arrest

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from police officers’ use of unreasonable methods of search and seizure. Police are prohibited from searching an individual or their home without a valid search warrant or probable cause. If an officer has probable cause to believe an individual committed a crime, a subsequent arrest is reasonable, and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. However, if the court determines the police lacked probable cause, the search and seizure may be deemed unreasonable and a violation of the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Probable cause requires sufficient evidence such that a reasonable person would believe a crime had been committed. Police officers are permitted to make an arrest without a warrant when they observe the commission of a felony or misdemeanor. In some states, under some circumstances, the law permits warrantless arrests for misdemeanor domestic assaults that were not committed in the officer’s presence.

Sometimes officers depend on information to find probable cause that ultimately proves to be false. However, the officer will not be liable for a violation of Fourth Amendment protections if he or she reasonably believed the information to be true at the time of the arrest.

False Imprisonment

A claim for false imprisonment does not necessarily require that an individual was falsely placed in jail. An officer may be liable for false imprisonment if they unlawfully detain an individual in a manner that substantially interferes with their personal freedom. For example, an officer’s use of unauthorized bodily restraints may be the basis of a false imprisonment claim.

Malicious Prosecution

If an individual has been falsely accused of a crime without probable cause, they may have a claim for malicious prosecution. Malicious prosecution is a violation of an individual’s Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty.

To prove malicious prosecution, the victim must show:

  1. Law enforcement officials began a criminal proceeding;
  2. There was no probable cause;
  3. The victim was not convicted;
  4. The proceeding was brought with malice toward the victim.

Malicious prosecution claims sometimes arise in situations in which law enforcement seeks to harass a person by pursuing criminal proceedings. Officers may attempt to harm a person’s reputation by falsely accusing them of a crime; divert attention from the real perpetrator of the crime; or cover up police misconduct.

Excessive Force

According to a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, excessive force refers to force beyond what the officer reasonably believes is necessary. In determining whether force is excessive, courts consider whether the officer’s use of force exceeded the limits of their authority.

In some situations, police officers may be justified to use deadly force. However, deadly force is only permitted in extreme circumstances. Generally, officers may use force that can cause death or serious bodily harm only in dire conditions after other methods have failed to control the situation.

In 2017, to address the issue of excessive force, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published the National Consensus Policy on the Use of Force. The Policy was developed to guide police departments on the use of less-than-deadly force. The guidelines urge officers to use de-escalation techniques to control a situation before considering the use of violent measures.


A taser gun shoots small barbed darts, which remain attached to the target and deliver a strong electric shock intended to physically incapacitate the victim. Every state permits the use of tasers for law enforcement officers. However, individual police departments determine the guidelines for their officer’s use of tasers when restraining individuals.

According to Reuters, in 2018, approximately 49 people died after being incapacitated by an officer’s taser. The number of deaths is relatively the same as those reported in 2016 and 2017. More than 1,000 people have died from police taser use since 2000. More than 90 percent of those killed were unarmed and approximately 25 percent suffered from mental disabilities.

Racial Profiling

The term racial profiling refers to the actions of police officers that single out suspects based on the person’s race, national origin, ethnic background, or religion. The public has become more aware of racial profiling in recent years. However, even five years after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, African American men are still disproportionately experiencing incidents of police brutality.

According to a 2019 study, African American men have a far greater risk of being killed by the police than white men. Over the course of a lifetime, one of every 1,000 African American men will experience a fatal encounter with the police. It is often difficult to identify racial profiling. In Pennsylvania, the State Police Department does not collect data on the race of drivers who are subjected to a traffic stop.

Body Cameras

Police body cameras record footage and sounds of police interactions with the public. Proponents of body cameras claim they reduce potential police misconduct and assert that the footage can be a valuable training tool. On the other hand, the use of body cameras raises concerns regarding violations of privacy.

Overcoming Police Immunity

Unfortunately, instances of police brutality are often unreported. Oftentimes, people are reluctant to report police misconduct because most situations involve the victim’s word against the police officer’s word. In other cases, police officers claim that their actions were reasonable. Officers may also attempt to assert governmental immunity, which protects police officers from lawsuits for actions committed during the performance of their job duties.

Qualified immunity balances the interest of the public to hold officials accountable for unreasonable behavior and the interest of protecting officials from frivolous claims that could inhibit their ability to perform their duties. Detention by an officer for questioning about a crime does not form the basis of a lawsuit. As long as the police officer performs his or her job properly, they are not violating the suspect’s rights.

However, if the police officer commits willful, unreasonable conduct that violates someone’s constitutional rights, then civil rights remedies come into play. Police officers also have a duty to protect people from improper actions by their fellow officers. If they do not, they may be liable to the victim for failing to intervene.

Injuries Resulting From Police Brutality

Victims of police brutality may suffer severe mental and physical injuries. Physical injuries may include:

  • Skin abrasions
  • Bone fractures
  • Brain injury
  • Electrocution
  • Spinal cord or back injuries
  • Scarring or disfigurement
  • Death

Psychological trauma may involve:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Paranoia
  • Distrust
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Acute stress disorder (ASD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Compensation in a Police Brutality Case

Civil rights violations can impact an individual’s life in many ways. Victims may face expensive medical costs, be unable to work, or find that their quality of life has been diminished. A victim of police brutality may be entitled to financial compensation for medical care, lost wages, and other financial losses incurred as a result of the incident.

A victim may also receive compensation for intangible losses that resulted from the wrongful act. Intangible losses may include pain and suffering, humiliation and embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life pleasures, and disfigurement. Punitive damages are uncommon, however, the court may award them in cases that involve willful or malicious conduct.

Proving a Police Brutality Civil Rights Case

To win a civil rights claim, the victim must prove that a law enforcement officer violated their constitutional rights, causing injury to the victim. Claims against law enforcement officers and departments can be complex and difficult to prove. Evidence supporting the claim, such as statements of police and witnesses, records, and other documentation is typically necessary to prove police misconduct.

Collect this evidence as soon as possible because it may be hard to locate it later. Evidence may also include pictures or video of the incident or injuries, or other objects pertaining to the case. Victims should also create their own written record of exactly what happened, so that important details are not confused or forgotten.

Civil rights cases against police departments can be complicated, expensive, and lengthy. In addition, there are procedural requirements that must be met to prevent victims from being barred from bringing their claims.

Did the Police Violate Your Civil Rights?

Recent events around the country have drawn attention to the way that police officers interact with members of the communities they serve. In Pennsylvania, as well as elsewhere in the United States, we hope we can trust law enforcement officers to protect us. However, many officers unlawfully use violence against the very individuals they are entrusted to protect.

Victims of police brutality may suffer life-altering injuries or even fatalities. Injuries often adversely affect an individual’s ability to sustain employment and carry on with their everyday lives. Victims have a legal right to hold police officers accountable for their illegal actions and to collect damages for their injuries. Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations governs the amount of time within which an individual may bring a personal injury claim.

The law provides different methods for pursuing a claim for damages. If police violated the civil rights of you or a loved one, a civil rights lawyer can discuss your legal rights and options.

The Zeiger Firm
1500 John F. Kennedy Blvd, Suite 620A,
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 546-0340

Author: Brian Zeiger
Brian Zeiger

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.