Victims of police misconduct, brutality, or excessive force can file a lawsuit in California. That lawsuit is usually based on civil rights violations.
The lawsuit can seek money damages for the victim. It can also demand an injunction that would prevent future misconduct. It could even lead to criminal charges being filed against the police officer.
Police misconduct can take a variety of different forms. Some of the most common include:
- unlawful detention,
- false arrest,
- excessive force,
- relying on racial profiling, and
- committing perjury.
When police violate a person's civil rights, the victim can be entitled to a remedy. That remedy may include:
- criminal prosecution of the offending officer,
- a civil rights lawsuit demanding an injunction and/or monetary damages,
- a Bivens claim demanding monetary damages, and/or
- filing an internal affairs complaint with the police department.
In this article, our California civil rights lawyers explain:
- 1. What is police misconduct in California?
- 2. What is unlawful detention?
- 3. What is a false arrest?
- 4. What is excessive force?
- 5. How can police commit misconduct by using racial profiling?
- 6. Is it misconduct when police commit perjury?
- 7. What are the remedies for police misconduct in California?
- 8. Can victims file a complaint with the police department or town?
- 9. Can evidence found through the misconduct be excluded from court?
- 10. What is a Section 1983 claim?
- 11. What is a Bivens lawsuit?
- 12. Can police misconduct lead to criminal prosecution?
1. What is police misconduct in California?
Police misconduct refers to inappropriate or illegal behavior by officers in their official capacity. Often this results in a civil rights violation.
Civil rights come from federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Some of the most common rights that are violated in police misconduct are:
- the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures,
- the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments,
- the right to due process before being deprived or life, liberty, or property,
- freedom of speech, and
- the right to privacy.
These rights can be violated by state actors, such as:
- police officers,
- sheriffs, and
- officers at law enforcement agencies like the DEA or ICE.
2. What is unlawful detention?
An unlawful detention is a police stop that violates the victim's Fourth Amendment rights.
Some detentions are more intrusive and controlling than others. The more intrusive the detention, the more certain a police officer has to be that the suspect committed a crime. In order of intrusiveness, there are 3 types of police encounters:
- Consensual encounters. These are not detentions. Police can initiate these at any time. The suspect is free to leave.
- Detentions. These are brief encounters that allow police to question a suspect and sometimes search a suspect for a weapon. They often take the form of a stop-and-frisk or a traffic stop. Police need a reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred.1
- Arrests. These are when police take a suspect into custody. Police can make a full search of a suspect during an arrest. They can use handcuffs to control the suspect and bring him to a jail facility. Police need to have probable cause to make an arrest.
Detentions can be unlawful if they violate the victim's rights. This can happen if:
- the detention was unreasonable long in duration,2
- there was no probable cause for an arrest,
- the police officer could not have had a reasonable suspicion of a crime when they detained the victim,
- excessive force was used during the detention, or
- the arrest warrant was invalid and the officer knew it.
3. What is a false arrest?
An arrest is an intentional deprivation of someone's freedom of movement. That deprivation compels the person to stay or go somewhere, against his will.3
An arrest can be a false arrest if the police officer had no legal authority to make it. False arrests violate the victim's Fourth Amendment rights. They are also known as false imprisonments. They can happen when:
- police make an arrest without a warrant or probable cause, or
- police use an invalid arrest warrant to make an arrest.
Some victims are arrested without a warrant. In these cases, the police officer has to show he or she had probable cause.4 This requires showing there was reasonable cause to believe the person arrested had committed either:
- a felony, or
- any crime in the officer's presence.5
Other arrests happen pursuant to a warrant. These can still be false arrests if the warrant was invalid.
Even if the warrant was invalid, though, the arrest can be legal if the officer acted in good faith.6
4. What is excessive force?
Police commit misconduct when they use excessive force during an arrest. The use of excessive force can make the arrest unreasonable. This can violate the victim's Fourth Amendment rights.
Police are only allowed to use as much force as is reasonably necessary to make the arrest.7 Factors include:
- whether the victim reasonably appeared to pose an immediate threat to the officer or others,
- the seriousness of the crime at issue, and
- whether the victim was resisting arrest or trying to get away.8
In California, courts also note the officer's decisions leading up to the use of force.9
When police use deadly force on someone, they can be charged with a crime. A new law in California makes it easier for this to happen.10 Previously, police could use deadly force when it was reasonable under the circumstances. Under the new law, it can only be used when necessary.11
When deadly force is used, it can also violate the victim's due process rights. It would have deprived the victim of their life without due process of law.
5. How can police commit misconduct by using racial profiling?
Police can commit misconduct by using racial profiling to detain people. This practice is most common when police stop-and-frisk people they suspect of wrongdoing.12
Racial profiling cannot create the reasonable suspicion needed for a detention. That reasonable suspicion has to concern a particular person not a class of people.13 Using someone's race as a reason for detaining them violates that person's:
- Fourth Amendment right to be free from searches and seizures that are unreasonable, and
- Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.
6. Is it misconduct when police commit perjury?
Police misconduct also include committing perjury. Police officers perjure themselves when they lie while under oath. They can do this:
- during trial,
- in grand jury testimony,
- in police reports, or
- in affidavits supporting probable cause for a search or arrest warrant.
This can make the resulting warrant invalid. Using the warrant can violate the victim's Fourth Amendment rights.
Perjury is also a crime. It can lead to charges of offering false evidence, as well.
7. What are the remedies for police misconduct in California?
There are remedies available for victims of police misconduct. They include:
- filing a complaint with the police department,
- asking the court to exclude any evidence that was found as a result of the misconduct, and
- file a civil rights lawsuit through Section 1983 or a Bivens claim.
In some cases, pursuing these remedies can lead to a criminal case against the cop.
8. Can victims file a complaint with the police department or town?
Victims of police misconduct can always file a complaint with the police department. That complaint can detail what happened and demand repercussions. In some cases, the complaint can lead to:
- the officer getting fired,
- a suspension,
- the officer being reassigned to another area in the department, or
- a reprimand against the officer.
9. Can evidence found through the misconduct be excluded from court?
Victims of police misconduct can find themselves facing a criminal charge. Evidence may have been obtained by violating the suspect's civil rights. The defense can bring a suppression motion asking that this evidence be excluded from trial. Without the evidence obtained through the misconduct, the prosecutor may have little else to use.
10. What is a Section 1983 claim?
Misconduct victims can also file a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. These claims hold actors liable for civil rights violations done under color of law.
1983 lawsuits can produce the following remedies:
- an injunction, or court order designed to keep the misconduct from happening, again, and/or
- monetary damages.
The injunctions from successful 1983 claims can lead to significant changes in the police department. It can force the department to:
- retrain officers,
- revise their official way of doing things,
- review internal customs, and
- fire offending police officers.
The monetary damages from a Section 1983 claim can include:
- compensatory damages, to compensate the victim for his or her losses,
- punitive damages, to punish the police officer, and
- presumed damages, to cover for the loss of liberty from the victim's violated rights.
However, recovering monetary damages in a Section 1983 claim requires overcoming qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a defense that the police officer can raise. It protects them from having to pay monetary damages in a lawsuit if:
- they did not violate someone's constitutional rights, or
- they did, but the right was not clearly established.14
The lawsuit can be filed against state or local officials and entities, like:
- the officer who committed the misconduct,
- the police department, and/or
- the town, county, or municipality.15
11. What is a Bivens lawsuit?
A Bivens lawsuit is a civil rights lawsuit for money damages that is filed against a federal official. It is very similar to a Section 1983 claim. Unlike 1983 claims, though, Bivens lawsuits can be filed against federal actors like:
- narcotics officers at the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA,16 or
- FBI agents.
Also unlike 1983 claims, Bivens claims cannot be filed against entities like:
- Department of Justice (DOJ),
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).17
Like 1983 claims, though, defendants can claim qualified immunity for their actions.
12. Can police misconduct lead to criminal prosecution?
Police misconduct can be so egregious that it leads to criminal prosecution. The officer can be charged with a crime.18
Criminal charges against police for misconduct are rare. They often only come after truly outrageous conduct. They tend to only be filed after the victim or his or her family file a lawsuit and begin to uncover damning evidence.
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1400.
Cervantez v. J.C. Penney Co., 595 P.2d 975 (Cal. 1979). See also California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1401.
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1402.
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1406.
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 440 and California Penal Code 835a.
California Penal Code 835a.
Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). (the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was a predecessor to the DEA).
FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471 (1994) (involving the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, the predecessor to the FDIC).
Marina Trahan Martinez, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Sarah Mervosh, “Fort Worth Officer Charged With Murder for Shooting Woman in Her Home,” The New York Times (October 14, 2019).