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California Police Misconduct Injury and Wrongful Death Claims

While most police officers are dedicated public servants who want to help their communities, there are some officers who are bad and engage in misconduct. Police misconduct and brutality are unfortunate problems that occur in cities across the U.S., including in Los Angeles. While police officers have broad authority to carry out lawful enforcement actions, they are restricted on how far they can go by the U.S. and California Constitutions. If an officer violates someone's rights by engaging in misconduct, the victim or surviving family members might seek legal remedies by filing a police misconduct injury or wrongful death claim. Here is some information about these types of claims that you should know.

Understanding Qualified Immunity

Police officers enjoy qualified immunity for their actions while they are working based on governmental immunity. In general, you can't sue the government unless you have permission to do so. While it can be distressing to be questioned by a police officer, there isn't anything you can do about it if the officer properly performed their job. However, if the officer did something that violated your constitutional rights, you might be able to overcome their qualified immunity and hold them accountable for their wrongful actions.

The government does provide some mechanisms through which the victims of police brutality and/or misconduct can file claims to recover financial compensation.

Common Types of Police Misconduct in California

The most common types of police misconduct that can form the basis of lawsuits are detailed below.

False Arrests

False arrests occur when police officers arrest people without probable cause. Before an officer can place you under arrest, they must have enough facts that a reasonable person under the same circumstances would believe that a crime had occurred. Police officers generally don't need warrants to arrest people for misdemeanors or felonies that the officers witnessed. However, a false arrest happens when an officer arrests someone without probable cause or with an invalid warrant.

Malicious Prosecution

A malicious prosecution occurs when the government prosecutes someone without having probable cause to believe the person committed a crime. To prove this type of claim, the victim will need to prove that the officer referred charges to the prosecutor without probable cause and with malice and that the case ended without a conviction.

Excessive Force

Cases involving excessive force are the types of police misconduct and brutality cases that are often reported by the news media. These types of incidents involve an officer using unreasonable force under the facts and circumstances. The officer's intentions won't be considered. For example, if an officer used reasonable force but had bad intentions, the victim's claim won't prevail. However, if the officer used excessive force but had good intentions, the excessive force claim might prevail.

Unlawful Detention

Unlawful detentions occur when officers stop people in a way that violates their rights under the Fourth Amendment. If a detention is intrusive, the officer must be certain that the person committed a crime. Detentions are brief encounters with the police that allow the officers to question suspects and look for weapons. Officers can't stop people unless they have reasonable suspicion that the people have committed a crime or traffic offense.

A detention might be unlawful in the following situations:

  • Unreasonably long
  • Lack of reasonable suspicion for the stop
  • Lack of probable cause if the person was arrested
  • Use of excessive force while detaining someone
  • Officer had an invalid warrant and knew it
Racial Profiling

Officers are prohibited from profiling people based on their race to decide whether to stop and detain them. Unfortunately, however, racial profiling is common. Profiling someone based on their race does not create reasonable suspicion to detain someone. When an officer stops someone based on their race, it violates the victim's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and their Fourteenth Amendment right to have equal protection under the law.

Committing Perjury

Some officers lie under oath before grand juries, during trials, in their reports, or in affidavits for search and arrest warrants. In addition to violating the victim's rights, perjury is a crime that can result in charges against the officer.

Legal Remedies for Police Misconduct

In California, people who have been the victims of police misconduct have a few ways to seek legal remedies for what happened to them. They can file complaints with the police department, file motions with the court in pending criminal cases to ask for evidence to be excluded, and file civil rights lawsuits. We'll take a look at each of these three courses of action below.

Filing Complaints With the Police Department

If you believe that you were the victim of police misconduct, you can file a complaint with the department that employs the officer. In your complaint, you can describe the incident and ask the department to discipline the officer. Filing a complaint can also provide evidence to others when an officer has engaged in a pattern of misconduct.

Filing Motions to Suppress Evidence

If you are charged with a crime after an officer engaged in misconduct, your criminal defense lawyer can file motions to suppress any evidence that was unlawfully gathered. For example, if an officer stopped you without reasonable suspicion or arrested you without probable cause, your attorney might be able to secure an order from the court excluding any evidence that was subsequently gathered following the unlawful police action. This could result in a dismissal of the charges.

Filing a Section 1983 Lawsuit

Under 42 U.S.C. Sect. 1983, victims of police misconduct are allowed to file civil rights lawsuits against the officers who violated their rights. If you win a Sect. 1983 claim, you might receive the following legal remedies:

  • Court orders to the department for retraining officers, revising their policies and procedures, and firing the involved officer(s)
  • Compensatory damages for your losses
  • Punitive damages to punish the officer and deter others from engaging in similar future behavior
  • Presumed damages for your loss of liberty

You will need to overcome the officer's qualified immunity to win your claim. In California, officers can't argue they have qualified immunity if a lawsuit is filed under the state's Tom Bane Civil Rights Act when an officer used coercion, threats, or intimidation to violate the victim's civil rights.

Filing a Bivens Lawsuit

You can also file a Bivens lawsuit to pursue monetary damages against a federal official, including a DEA agent, FBI agent, ICE agent, or FDIC agent. These types of defendants can also claim they have qualified immunity.

Police Misconduct and Criminal Prosecution

In some cases, police officers engage in such extreme misconduct that it results in the criminal prosecution of the officer. A famous example of this that recently occurred was the criminal prosecution of the officers involved in the death of George Floyd.

While officers can be prosecuted for engaging in misconduct or brutality, these types of cases are rare. In many cases, they only are filed after there is significant media attention or after the victim's family has filed a civil rights lawsuit and found troubling evidence.

Difficulty of Pursuing Police Misconduct Claims in California

Police misconduct cases in California can be complex. There are multiple deadlines and processes that must be strictly followed. Since the claims are filed against the government, the deadline for filing a claim is much shorter than for other types of personal injury or wrongful death matters. For state claims, you must file a notice of your intent to file a claim with the police department no later than six months after the incident to preserve your right to file a lawsuit. After you have filed your notice of claim, you will then have no more than 12 months from the date of the incident to file your lawsuit. If you miss these deadlines, your claim will be time-barred, meaning you won't be able to recover compensation for your losses.

Proving a police misconduct civil rights lawsuit will come down to the evidence you present and whether you are able to overcome the officer's claim of qualified immunity. It is best for you to speak to an experienced civil rights attorney as soon as possible after your incident to preserve evidence and your rights. Call the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC today to request a free consultation at 866-966-5240.

Client Reviews
I have known Steven for some time now and when his services were required he jumped in and took control of my cases. I had two and they were handled with the utmost professionalism and courtesy. He went the extra mile regardless of the bumps in the road. I can not see me using any other attorney and I would recommend him to any of my family and friends. Josie A.
Steven was vital during our most trying time. He was referred by a friend after an accident that involved a family member. While he was critical and lying in the hospital, Steven was kind, patient and knowledgeable about what we were going through. Following our loss, Steven became a tough and aggressive negotiator and made sure that we receive a huge compensation. I would refer Steven in fact, this happened 2 years ago and I still speak highly of his service. Cheryl S.
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