Nevada law permits police to use deadly force such as gunfire in very limited circumstances, including:
- To effectuate an arrest,
- To stop a dangerous suspect from fleeing,
- To stop a suspected or convicted felon from escaping jail or prison,
- To suppress a riot, and/or
- In accordance with Nevada self-defense laws
Families of victims killed by police using deadly force can sue law enforcement for wrongful death in Nevada and Section 1983 civil rights violations in Nevada. Plaintiffs may be eligible to recover compensatory damages for such expenses as:
If the police’s use of lethal force was malicious or especially shocking, the court can also award punitive damages.
In this article, our Nevada personal injury attorneys discuss:
- 1. When police may use deadly force
- 2. Internal Affairs investigations
- 3. Suing police for using lethal force
- 4. Whom victims can sue for lethal force
- 5. Potential defenses by police
- 6. Statute of limitations
Police may legally inflict lethal force on another in the following situations when necessary:
- To arrest a suspect,
- To stop a dangerous suspect from fleeing,
- To capture an inmate who is a suspected or convicted felon,
- To suppress a riot, and/or
- In self-defense or defense of others
1.1. Deadly force to make an arrest
Nevada law permits police to use lethal force when necessary in attempting to lawfully apprehend or arrest a person.1 Logically, deadly force should not be necessary unless the arrestee is dangerous (as discussed below in sections 1.2 and 1.5).
If the arrestee is resisting, officers are encouraged to use verbal warnings or, if appropriate, “intermediate force” to subdue the suspect, such as tasers, pepper spray or batons.2
1.2. Deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect
Nevada law permits police to use lethal force if a suspect is trying to escape arrest if:
- the lethal force is necessary to prevent escape, and
- the officer first gives a warning (if feasible) prior to using lethal force, and
In short, the suspect must be dangerous in order for police to use lethal force to prevent an escape.3 Henderson criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an example:
Example: A Henderson Police Department police officer see a teenager swiping an iPhone from Best Buy. The officer approaches him, and the teen — who appears unarmed — runs away. The officer cannot keep up with him, so he shoots the teenager in the thigh. Here, the officer’s use of deadly force in preventing the teen’s escape was unjustified because his theft crime was not a violent felony, and the teen did not appear dangerous.
Had the teen in the above example committed an armed robbery instead of mere shoplifting, then the officer might have had sufficient justification to shoot because robbery does involve the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm.
1.3. Deadly force to capture a felonious inmate
Nevada law permits police to use lethal force when necessary in retaking an escaped inmate who has been either:
- committed for a felony,
- arrested for a felony, or
- convicted of a felony
Therefore, police may not use lethal force on an escaped inmate who committed only a misdemeanor (unless the inmate is posing a threat of serious bodily harm, as discussed in subsections 1.2 and 1.5). But even if the escaped inmate has committed a felony, police may use lethal force only when necessary.4 Pahrump criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse provides an illustration:
Example: A convicted murderer escapes Ely State Prison. Officers find him unarmed in the desert and surround him. The convict appears to surrender, but then one of the officers shoots him dead. Here, the officer’s use of deadly force was probably unjustified because it was not necessary to capture the convict: He had already surrendered and was surrounded by police.
Had the convict in the above example been armed and resisting capture, then lethal force arguably would have been necessary to capture him.
1.4. Deadly force to suppress a riot
Nevada law permits police to use lethal force when necessary in lawfully suppressing a riot or preserving the peace.5 Presumably, this applies to violent and chaotic uprisings that threaten the health and safety of the public. Angry protests and demonstrations that are otherwise safe do not justify lethal force.
1.5. Deadly force in self-defense (or defense of others)
Nevada law permits police to use lethal force when necessary in protecting against an imminent threat to the life of a person.6 In this way, police share the same rights to self-defense and defense of others that civilians do. Reno criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an example:
Example: A North Las Vegas Police Department officer is patrolling the street when he sees a gang member take out his gun and point it at him. The officer takes out his gun and shoots back, killing the gang member. Here, the officer was probably justified in shooting the gang member because he reasonably believed he faced an imminent threat to his life.
If the gang member in the above example was not holding a weapon, then the officer would have no legal justification to fight back at all.
Victims of excessive police force — or family of victims killed by a police officer — may file a complaint with the officer’s police department. The department’s review board will then conduct an “internal affairs (IA) investigation” into the matter.
During the IA investigation, the department may place the officer on leave and hold a hearing. If the board concludes that the officer committed misconduct, the department may discipline the officer or terminate his/her employment.
Currently, three police departments in Nevada permit people to submit officer complaints online:
- Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) online complaint form
- Reno Police Department online complaint form
- Washoe County Sheriff’s Office online complaint form
It is strongly encouraged that people seek an attorney’s assistance in completing an IA complaint form. An attorney can help compose the complaint in such a way that may help the victim or victim’s family’s chances of recovery money in a civil suit.
Note that Nevada law may give the police permission to use deadly force in certain situations when necessary, but the law never requires deadly force. So whenever an officer does shoot to substantially injure or kill, the officer’s judgment should always come under strict scrutiny by victims, their families, police departments, and society at large.
An unjustified homicide by police opens the door for various civil lawsuits, including:
- A wrongful death claim by the victim’s family
- A Section 1983 claim by the victim’s estate or family
Note that victims who are injured but do not die from excessive police force can sue for battery.
3.1. Wrongful Death
“Wrongful death” has four elements that the victim’s family (“plaintiff”) would need to prove in order to prevail in court over the police (“defendant”):
- The death of a person (“decedent”);
- The defendant’s wrongful act or negligence caused the death;
- There are surviving family members suffering a monetary injury due to the death, and;
- The plaintiff is an heir or personal representative of the decedent
Proving wrongful death — which is a civil cause of action — is very different from proving the criminal charges of murder or manslaughter. The plaintiff does not have to show premeditation or intent to kill. Instead, the plaintiff has to show that the plaintiff’s behavior — whether willful or accidental — resulted in the death.7
Plaintiffs in wrongful death suits may be able to recover compensatory damages for:
- loss of financial support by the decedent,
- funeral expenses, and/or
- medical expenses prior to the death
Courts consider such factors as the decedent’s age, salary, profession, and health when determining loss of financial support, if any.
Courts can also award punitive damages if the courts find the defendant’s behavior to be malicious or otherwise egregious. Depending on the case, punitive damages can be as much as three times the compensatory damages or more.
3.2. Section 1983
Section 1983 of the United States Code Title 42 provides people (or their estates) a way to sue law enforcement for violating their civil rights.8 Arguably, there is no civil rights violation more grievous than inflicting serious bodily harm or death.
Note that only city, county, or state police employees can be sued under Section 1983. Federal police can be sued through a “Bivens” lawsuit, which is like a federal version of a Section 1983 lawsuit.9
The victim’s estate may be able to recover certain compensatory damages such as any medical costs the decedent may have incurred from his/her injury before dying. If the decedent has a family, the court may also award loss of future earnings. However, it is unclear whether Nevada courts would award pain and suffering damages for a deceased plaintiff.
The defendant(s) may also be ordered to pay attorney’s fees and, depending on the case, punitive damages.10
Possible defendants in wrongful death or Section 1983 lawsuits stemming from a police officer’s use of deadly force may include:
- the police officer(s) or sheriff’s deputy who inflicted the deadly force on the victim,
- the police chief or sheriff,
- the police department or sheriff’s office, and/or
- the city or county
Even though an individual officer may have inflicted the damage, it may be possible to prove that the police department is liable as well. And since police officers do not usually have much money saved, suing the department is often the best chance at winning substantial financial damages.
Police facing wrongful death or Section 1983 lawsuits may raise various defenses in an attempt to escape liability for using deadly force. Some of their arguments may include:
- The police acted in lawful self-defense or defense of others,
- The deadly force was necessary to effectuate an arrest
- The deadly force was necessary to stop a dangerous suspect or inmate from escaping
- The deadly force was necessary to suppress a riot or keep the peace
In any case, the police would try to argue that any reasonable person in their position would have reacted the same way.
Additionally, police will claim that they have “qualified immunity in Nevada” that shields them from liability. But although police normally are protected from prosecution, plaintiffs may be able to get around immunity by showing that the police did not execute their job duties in “good faith.”11
Valuable evidence in lawsuits against police may include police body-cam videos, eyewitnesses, medical records, and possibly expert testimony.
The statute of limitations for bringing a wrongful death lawsuit is two (2) years after the death. The time limit for bringing a Section 1983 case is not as clear, but it presumably two (2) years after the police’s infliction of deadly force or the victim’s death. Every case is different, so plaintiffs are encouraged to consult with an attorney to help calculate the correct statute of limitations in their particular matter.12
Also see our article on suing for police misconduct in Nevada.
Harmed by law enforcement in California? See our article on police misconduct in California.
Harmed in law enforcement in Colorado? See our article on police misconduct in Colorado.
- NRS 200.140 Justifiable homicide by public officer. Homicide is justifiable when committed by a public officer, or person acting under the command and in the aid of the public officer, in the following cases:
1. In obedience to the judgment of a competent court.
2. When necessary to overcome actual resistance to the execution of the legal process, mandate or order of a court or officer, or in the discharge of a legal duty.
3. When necessary:
(a) In retaking an escaped or rescued prisoner who has been committed, arrested for, or convicted of a felony;
(b) In attempting, by lawful ways or means, to apprehend or arrest a person;
(c) In lawfully suppressing a riot or preserving the peace; or
(d) In protecting against an imminent threat to the life of a person.
- See Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 826 (9th Cir. 2010); Jones v. Las Vegas Metro Police Dep’t., 873 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir. 2017).
- NRS 171.1455 Use of deadly force to effect arrest: Limitations. If necessary to prevent escape, an officer may, after giving a warning, if feasible, use deadly force to effect the arrest of a person only if there is probable cause to believe that the person:1. Has committed a felony which involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm or the use of deadly force; or2. Poses a threat of serious bodily harm to the officer or to others.
- NRS 200.140.
- NRS 41.085.
- 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
- Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).
- 42 U.S.C. § 1988.
- Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001).
- NRS 11.190.