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Police Brutality

Is a police officer allowed to hurt me for any reason?

No. While this seems obvious to us, we see numerous instances of police brutality without any regard for the rights of others. People have certain rights, including the Fourth (4th) Amendment, Eighth Amendment (8th), and Fourteenth (14th Amendment). Even when an officer does have the right to use force against you, the force must be objectively reasonable.

A determination of “how much force is reasonable in effectuating an arrest is based on the ‘totality of the circumstances,’ including:

  • The severity of the crime at issue,
  • The immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others that the suspect poses,
  • Whether the suspect is resisting or evading arrest,
  • How ‘violent or dangerous’ the suspect is,
  • The ‘duration’ of the force,
  • Whether the force was used in making an arrest,
  • Whether the suspect might be armed, and
  • The number of people with whom the police must contend.

Excessive Force during Search & Seizure (4th Amendment)

The Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of unreasonable and therefore excessive force by a police officer in the course of effecting an arrest. This means that even if there are valid grounds for an arrest and for force to be used, the force cannot be excessive. No officer has a license to use force without limit.

What counts as ‘excessive’ force?

Even relatively minor physical injuries and uses or force may serve as the basis for an excessive force claim. Force can be unreasonable even without physical blows or injuries.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment (8th Amendment)

The Eighth Amendment protects inmates from cruel and unusual punishment. No constitutional amendment specifically addresses the treatment of suspects who have been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. As such, claims against people that have been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial are evaluated under the Fourteenth Amendment—“the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause protects a pretrial detainee from the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 n. 10 (1989).

Eighth Amendment claims brought by convicted inmates alleging excessive force are determined by resolving the question of whether a prison guard “inflicted unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering ultimately turns on whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm. Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 320-321 (1986).

When can the police search me?

Law enforcement must have probable cause to search your car, house, or your body; unless there is an exception that allows such conduct. Exceptions include:

  • Consent – when you allow an officer to search (consent must be free and voluntary)
  • Plain View – when police are in a place they have the right to be, their observation of any item in plain view is not a “search” within the meaning of the 4th Amendment; probable cause to search or seize the item must be developed from the mere act of observing it, without any physical manipulation.
  • Search incident to a lawful arrest – while conducting a lawful arrest, officer may only search arrestee’s person and the area “within his immediate control”—the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.
  • Automobile exception – with a reasonable belief that contraband is inside the vehicle, it allows law enforcement to search not only the vehicle itself but also any containers inside it that may contain evidence so long as law enforcement has probable cause to believe evidence of a crime may be found inside. Scope of search is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.
  • Exigent Circumstances – “The exigencies of the situation” may sometimes make exemption from the warrant requirement “imperative.”, i.e. others may be placed in danger or evidence may be destroyed.
  • Hot Pursuit – police may enter home if they are in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing criminal. Once inside, they can search the entire area without first obtaining a search warrant
  • Stop and Frisk – if officer has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, he can conduct a pat-down search of the outer garments for weapons.

What can I do to stop police misconduct?

You may be entitled to an injunction, stopping the illegal practice from taking place anymore. A person may recover damages for “pain, suffering, embarrassment, and humiliation”. Damages for punishing the wrongdoer, called ‘punitive damages’, may be available in some cases.

Although “punitive damages are not available against municipalities or against individuals sued in their official capacities, punitive damages may be awarded against defendants sued in their individual capacities,” such as police officers in § 1983 actions.

The law only permits injunctions and money damages. The law cannot force an apology, but obtaining money damages may be the only way that a law enforcement agency will stop its illegal practice. Plus, this encourages officer training and scrutinizes hiring protocols.