Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Claims in California

Victims of police misconduct in California have numerous avenues of recourse, including filing a civil rights lawsuit and making a complaint to the police agency, internal affairs or police commission.

It's not uncommon for police to beat up suspects, deputies to fabricate evidence, and corrections officers to lie on the witness stand.

This sort of misconduct by California police should never occur. But it does.

Luckily the law protects you even when law enforcement does not.  The United States Constitution and certain laws give you civil rights.  These important safeguards grant you liberty from, and redress for, government abuse and discrimination.

We're civil rights and criminal defense attorneys...but we've also been prosecutors and police officers.  We understand how the players operate and we know how to tell your side of the story.

This article provides an introduction to police misconduct issues and civil rights lawsuits.  If you have questions after reading it, please contact us for a consultation.

You might also be interested in our related articles Police Brutality and Excessive Force, Prison and Jail Abuse, Tasers, Police Dogs, Pepper Spray, Racial Profiling and High-Speed Chases.

This article covers:

1. What is police misconduct?
2. What are civil rights and civil rights violations?
3. If my rights have been violated, what can I do about it?
4. What can I win from my case?
1. What is police misconduct?

Police misconduct comes in many forms.  It can be an outright excessive force at the police station or perjury at the courthouse.  It includes abuse and corruption and it happens whenever cops victimize the very people they are supposed to serve and protect.

California Civil Rights Lawyer Neil Shouse explains:  "The sad reality is that police abuse continues to occur with alarming frequency on the streets and in the jails of California.  Victims deserve their day in court.  They deserve justice."

Here are a few ways police abuse and excessive force can show up:

    • beatings
    • kickings
    • gang tackles
    • improper shootings
    • unreasonable weapon use, including
      • tasers
      • batons
      • police dogs
      • pepper spray
  • unreasonable restraint use
  • intimidation
  • sexual assaults
  • illegal strip searches
  • planting evidence
  • fabricating evidence
  • coercing confessions
  • false arrest
  • perjury

The Los Angeles Police Department has received particular attention for police misconduct.

The Christopher Commission Report was issued in the aftermath of the 1991 Rodney King beating. The Commission found repetitive use of excessive force as well as a lack of accountability by the LAPD.

Just as the ink dried on Christopher Commission findings, unseemly happenings in the Rampart Division spurred other investigatory bodies to action.  The Rampart Scandal involved dozens of officers being implicated in acts of misconduct ranging from narcotics dealing to suspect framing.2

It is important to remember that many of our California police officers are honorable people who take their difficult and dangerous jobs seriously and behave with integrity.  They are not all like the cops who pummeled Rodney King or acted like gang members in the Rampart scandal.

But we can't take anything for granted.  We can't turn a blind eye to abuse just because it's clothed in blue.3

Why does police misconduct happen?

Police abuse and police corruption is caused by a variety of factors.  Sometimes it's caused by poor training or pressure to get convictions.  Other times it's caused by sloppiness or bad judgment.4

Misconduct can result from the "code of silence" that permeates police departments across the country.  This is a "protect their own" culture that can lead to retaliation against whistleblowers.  The problem was dramatically brought to light by Al Pacino as corruption-fighting former New York City cop Frank Serpico in the noted film Serpico.

In the worst cases, police abuse boils down to racism, cruelty and meanness.

Regardless of the reasons, the consequences cannot be underestimated.  An Innocence Project study found that police misconduct contributed to almost half of the first 74 DNA exonerations the nonprofit handled.5 This means innocent people end up in jail when cops perjure themselves, falsify evidence, make deals with crooked police informants, and conceal exculpatory facts.

Police abuse inflicts lasting trauma on victims and their families.  Broken bones and bruises heal, but feelings of fear, humiliation and distrust of government resulting from bad police encounters continue.

You can read more about police abuse in our related articles on Police Brutality and Excessive Force, Tasers, Police Dogs, Pepper Spray, Racial Profiling and High-Speed Chases.

Can police abuse happen in jail or is that different?

Police misconduct is not limited to the street or the backseat of police cruisers.  It can happen in county jails and California state prisons, too.  Just because you're doing time doesn't mean you've given up all your rights.  You should be able to serve your time in safety and with dignity.

You can read more about these issues in our related articles Prison and Jail Abuse, Excessive Force by Jail Guards, Prison Medical Neglect and Malnutrition, Bail and Custody Overstays and Treatment of Homosexual Inmates.

2. What are civil rights and civil rights violations?

Civil rights are liberties granted by the United States Constitution and federal and California state laws.  People have certain fundamental rights that cannot be intruded upon or violated by government without good reason.

In the criminal justice sphere, we are often concerned with the Fourth Amendment constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  If an officer uses excessive force in making an arrest or searches a home without a valid California search warrant or probable cause, that officer may violate the suspect's Fourth Amendment rights.

Another important right is the Eighth Amendment constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.  The Eighth Amendment is especially relevant in the context of jail and prison abuse.

Civil rights violations can occur when the rights granted by these important Amendments are violated.6

3. If my rights have been violated, what can I do about it?

If you have been victimized by law enforcement, you might be able to take your case to court.  There are three main causes of action:

  • constitutional claims
  • civil tort claims
  • state criminal claims

Let's look a bit more closely at these causes of action.

Constitutional claims

Police misconduct cases often allege violations of the United States Constitution.  Cases also might allege violations under the California Constitution.7

Section 1983 Claims

Many constitutional violations are litigated under Section 1983 of the United States Code.  Section 1983 gives victims the right to sue people who harm them in serious ways while acting under color of state law.8

Section 1983 gained momentum as a tool to combat police abuse after an important 1961 United States Supreme Court case involving misconduct by Chicago cops.9

In order to win a Section 1983 case you must show:

  1. one of your constitutional rights was violated
  2. by someone acting under color of law, and
  3. that person is not immune from liability

We discuss Section 1983 cases in more detail in our related article 42 U.S.C. 1983, but for now let's look at a Northern California case to see Section 1983 in action.

This case arose from a standoff in Butte County.  It ended with an emotionally disturbed man losing his eye.  Here is what happened:

Plaintiff Richard Deorle was agitated and in pain after learning he had Hepatitis C.  He had been drinking and taking medication and was behaving in an erratic and suicidal manner.

Not knowing what to do, his wife called the cops.  Between 13 and 24 officers responded, including specially trained "special incident response team" members.  Roadblocks were erected so Deorle cold not escape beyond his property.

Deorle was verbally abusive and at times wielded a crossbow and hatchet.  Still, he was basically compliant and obeyed officer commands to drop the weapons.  He was above all emotionally disturbed.

Things came to a head when SIRT member Greg Rutherford, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with cloth-cased shots, fired at Deorle while he was still some distance away.  Rutherford did not issue any warning.  The shot took out Deorle's eye, fractured his skull and lodged in his brain.

According to the Ninth Circuit, Rutherford used excessive force when he shot Deorle.  Rutherford's conduct was unreasonable under the circumstances and violated Deorle's Fourth Amendment rights.

There were other ways this swarm of officers -- especially those supposedly trained to diffuse volatile situations -- could have handled the troubled Deorle without harming themselves or anyone else.10

Bivens claims

"Bivens claims" are similar to Section 1983 claims.  Both provide a means of redress for constitutional violations.  The difference is that Bivens claims are used in cases involving federal officers while Section 1983 claims are used in cases involving state or city officers.

The Supreme Court validated this cause of action in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents.  In that case, the Court decided that Mr. Bivens could sue federal narcotics agents who violated his constitutional rights when they humiliated him in front of his family and arrested him without a warrant.11

Civil tort claims

In addition to or instead of a constitutional claim, you might have a state tort law claim.12 A tort case is a lawsuit for compensation or another redress for a harm that is not criminal in nature.13

Torts often have similar names to crimes. But they are different kinds of cases.  For example, the tort of battery is different from the California crime of battery (defined in Penal Code 242).

Tort cases are tried in civil courts and not in criminal courts.  You don't go to jail if you are found liable of a tort -- but sometimes you need to pay out money to compensate the victim.

Here are some of the torts an officer might commit in a police misconduct case:

  • assault
  • battery
  • wrongful death
  • negligence
  • false arrest
  • false imprisonment
  • infliction of emotional distress

The law views cases where an officer intentionally tried to hurt you in a different manner from cases in which the officer hurt you through carelessness.  The former case involves an intentional tort while the latter involves a negligent tort.

You can read more about tort cases in our related article Civil Court Cases.

Government Immunity

A big hurdle in all kinds of police abuse cases is the concept of immunity.  This is a theory that shields certain government actors and entities from civil liability from harm that they cause in some situations.14

The immunity concept is governed by a complicated patchwork of laws and rules.  Different scenarios may lead to different outcomes as they relate to an officer's conduct and liability.15

We discuss the concept of immunity and other defenses that may be available to an officer in our articles 42 U.S.C. 1983 and Civil Court Cases.

State criminal claims

If you have been abused by cops in a way that amounts to a crime, the district attorney's office might file criminal charges.  Some of the possible charges they might file are for the crime of battery or the crime of assault with deadly weapon or unnecessary assaulting or beating of a person by an officer (Penal Code 149).16

In extreme cases, where the officer took sadistic pleasure from brutalizing you, he or she might be charged with the California crime of torture (defined in Penal Code 206).17 An officer who gives false information in a police report or on the witness stand could be charged with perjury under California Penal Code 118.18

These are all very serious charges and they could result in the cop going to jail.

4. What can I win from my case?

If you win your case, you might get money damages to compensate you for the harm you suffered.  Rodney King eventually won more than three million dollars for civil rights violations committed against him when he was beaten.19

Another California case involved an improper search by cops of homes of alleged Hell's Angels bikers.  During the search cops unreasonably shot and killed three dogs and ended up having to pay almost a million dollars in damages.20

Sometimes the relief is smaller or even non-monetary in nature.  The "win" may be in holding someone accountable for police misconduct, excessive force and abuse of power.

There is also victory in seeing a revised policy or department change that makes it less likely innocent people will be harmed in the future.  In this way, your lawsuit can help change the system and make the county a more just place for all of us.

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers Can Help.
Img call for help

If you or a loved one is in need of help with civil rights and having police misconduct and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

You might also be interested in reading our related articles Police Brutality and Excessive Force, Prison and Jail Abuse, Tasers, Police Dogs, Pepper Spray, Racial Profiling, High-Speed Chases, 42 U.S.C 1983, Civil Court Cases, Prison and Jail Abuse, Excessive Force by Jail Guards, Prison Medical Neglect and Malnutrition, Bail and Custody Overstays and Treatment of Homosexual Inmates.

For information about Nevada police misconduct law, go to our page on Nevada police misconduct law.

Helpful links:







1Our California Civil Rights Lawyers have local offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, San Diego, San Francisco, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

2See LAPD Notice of Investigation Letter by United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (May 2000) [eventually resulting in consent decree authorizing Justice Department to oversee LAPD for five years] and Consent Decree Overview by LAPD.  See also Report of the Rampart Independent Review Panel convened by Board of Police Commissioners (November 2000) and Independent Analysis of the LAPD Board of Inquiry Report on the Rampart Scandal by noted constitutional scholar and law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky (revised Sept 2005).

3See DOJ Notice of Investigation Letter, infra.  ("We have found that the LAPD's pattern or practice of police misconduct includes:  the unconstitutional use of force by LAPD officers, including improper officer-involved shootings; improper seizures of persons, including making police stops not based on reasonable suspicion and making arrests without probable cause; seizures of property not based on probable cause; and improper searches of persons and property with insufficient cause.  Although we have concluded that these types of misconduct occur on a regular basis in the LAPD, we believe that the majority of officers are ethical, hardworking, and responsible individuals, who have not, themselves, violated the constitutional rights of the persons they serve and protect.")  Surveys indicate that civil lawsuits against police rose from 1,741 cases in 1967 to about 30,000 in the 1990's.  See Civil Liability in Criminal Justice by Darrell Ross (3rd Ed 2003), 5.

4According to a Washington, D.C. police captain, "The major cause in the lack of integrity in American police officers is mediocrity."  See Board of Inquiry into the Rampart Area Corruption Incident Public Report (March 200), Preface, quoting Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Captain Swope.

5See The Innocence Project -- Understand the Causes ("The cases of wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing are replete with evidence of fraud or misconduct by prosecutors or police departments.")  The group also found that prosecutorial misconduct, as opposed to police misconduct, led to an almost equal number of wrongful convictions.

6Other important rights are found in the Fifth Amendment (right against double jeopardy and self-incrimination), Sixth Amendment (right to speedy trial and to confront witnesses) and Fourteenth Amendment (right to due process of law).  Civil rights span into other areas, as well, like housing and employment discrimination and disability rights.  You can read more about these areas on the Civil Rights Section webpage of the California Attorney General's Office and the Civil Rights Division webpage of the United States Department of Justice.

7See California Civil Code Section 52.1  ("(a) If a person or persons, whether or not acting under color of law, interferes by threats, intimidation, or coercion, or attempts to interfere by threats, intimidation, or coercion, with the exercise or enjoyment by any individual or individuals of rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or of the rights secured by the Constitution or laws of this state, the Attorney General, or any district attorney or city attorney may bring a civil action for injunctive and other appropriate equitable relief in the name of the people of the State of California, in order to protect the peaceable exercise or enjoyment of the right or rights secured. An action brought by the Attorney General, any district attorney, or any city attorney may also seek a civil penalty of twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000). If this civil penalty is requested, it shall be assessed individually against each person who is determined to have violated this section and the penalty shall be awarded to each individual whose rights under this section are determined to have been violated.  (b) Any individual whose exercise or enjoyment of rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or of rights secured by the Constitution or laws of this state, has been interfered with, or attempted to be interfered with, as described in subdivision (a), may institute and prosecute in his or her own name and on his or her own behalf a civil action for damages, including, but not limited to, damages under Section 52, injunctive relief, and other appropriate equitable relief to protect the peaceable exercise or enjoyment of the right or rights secured.")  See also Venegas v. County of Los Angeles (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 1230 [holding that standards for qualified immunity under Section 1983 and Section 52.1 are different and discussing differences between the statutes]

8See 42 U.S.C. 1983  ("Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.")  See also Police Misconduct Law and Litigation by Michael Avery and David Rudovsky under auspices of National Lawyers Guild (2nd Ed.1995).

9See Monroe v. Pape (1961) 365 U.S. 167  ("The question with which we now deal is the narrower one of whether Congress, in enacting [Section 1983], meant to give a remedy to parties deprived of constitutional rights, privileges and immunities by an official's abuse of his position.We conclude that it did so intend."  Id at 172)

10See Deorle v. Rutherford (9th 2001) 242 F.3d 1119  ("Here, given all the circumstances -- the large number of police officers present, the pending arrival of the negotiators 'essential to resolve [such] critical incidents'; the nature of Deorle' s conduct (essentially disturbing the peace); Deorle' s compliance with the prior commands of the officers; the absence of any physical assault; Deorle' s having discarded the crossbow when told to do so and being unarmed at the time he was fired upon -- the fact that Deorle was walking on his own property in Rutherford' s direction with a can or bottle in his hand is insufficient by any objective measure to justify the force deployed. Our conclusion is strongly supported by Rutherford' s failure to give Deorle any warning that he would be shot if he approached any closer, or any order to drop the can or bottle or stop where he was: Deorle certainly could not have been expected to comply with instructions that were never given to him.")  See also Graham v. Connor (1989) 490 U.S. 386  ("Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of 'the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests' against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.Our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has long recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it.... its proper application requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id at 396)

11See Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents (1971) 403 U.S. 388.  ("We think that respondents' thesis rests upon an unduly restrictive view of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by federal agents, a view that has consistently been rejected by this Court.  Respondents seek to treat the relationship between a citizen and a federal agent unconstitutionally exercising his authority as no different from the relationship between two private citizens.  In so doing, they ignore the fact that power, once granted, does not disappear like a magic gift when it is wrongfully used. An agent acting - albeit unconstitutionally - in the name of the United States possesses a far greater capacity for harm than an individual trespasser exercising no authority other than his own."  Id at 392)  See also Rethinking Bivens:  Legitimacy and Constitutional Adjudication, by James Pfander and David Baltmanis, Georgetown Law Journal (2009).

12See West's California Jurisprudence (3rd), Vo. 35A, Government Tort Liability 69 (Assault and Battery) and 70 (False Arrest; False Imprisonment)  There is overlap in theory and practice between the concepts of tort wrongs and constitutional violations.  The Supreme Court acknowledged this connection in Monroe v. Pape, the watershed Section 1983 case.  ("Section [1983] should be read against the background of tort liability that makes a man responsible for the natural consequences of his actions." at 187)  See Torres v. City of Madera (2008) 524 F.3d 1053 [Section 1983 claims, as well as California state law claims of wrongful death, assault and battery, false arrest and imprisonment, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress, filed in case in which Madera officer mistook her Glock for her taser and shot and killed handcuffed suspect in back of cruiser] and Hernandez v City of Pomona (2009) 46 Cal.4th 501 [collateral estoppel precludes re-litigation of state negligence claim after conclusion of Section 1983 case where state claim arises from same situation involving Pomona officer shooting and killing suspect after high-speed chase]

13Black's Law Dictionary defines tort as a "private or civil wrong or injury.for which the court will provide a remedy in the form of an action for damages."  See also Prosser and Keeton on Law of Torts (5th Ed), Ch. 1  ("Broadly speaking, a tort is a civil wrong, other than breach of contract, for which the court will provide a remedy in the form of an action for damages.  This, of course, says nothing more than that a tort is one kind of legal wrong, for which the law will give a particular redress.  But even this vague statement is inaccurate, since one important form of remedy for a tort is an injunction, granted in a court of equity, before any damage occurs.  Another is restitution of what has been wrongfully taken, and still another is self help by the injured party.")

14See California Tort Claims Act, California Government Code, Part 2, Liability of Public Entities and Public Employees 810 et seq.  As for federal torts, see Federal Torts Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b) and 2671-2680  See also People v. Deorle, infra 242 F.3d 1119  ("The doctrine of qualified immunity insulates government agents against personal liability for money damages for actions taken in good faith pursuant to their discretionary authority.More specifically, 'governmental officials . . . generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818.)

15As to state causes of action, see Blankenhorn v. City of Orange (2007) 485 F.3d 463 [in case arising from arrest of alleged gang member for trespass at shopping mall, tort claims for false imprisonment statutorily barred because arrest was justified but other state law claims relating to excessive use of force not barred] and Bias v. Moynihan (2007) 508 F.3d 1212 [in case arising from involuntary psychiatric confinement of woman, state tort claims statutorily barred where confinement done according to Welfare & Institutions Code]  See also Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 54 Cal.3d 202 [holding City of Los Angeles liable under theory of respondeat superior for rape committed by police officer during scope of his employment] ("Our society has entrusted police officers with enforcing its laws and ensuring the safety of the lives and property of its members.  In carrying out these important responsibilities, the police act with the authority of the state.  When police officers on duty misuse that formidable power to commit sexual assaults, the public employer must be held accountable for their actions." Id at 222)

16See also California Penal Code Section 149 ("Every public officer who, under color of authority, without lawful necessity, assaults or beats any person, is punishable by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by imprisonment in the state prison, or in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.")

17Under Penal Code 206, California law defines "torture" as inflicting great bodily harm on another person with the specific intent to cause cruel or extreme pain.

18See California Penal Code 118, defining the crime of perjury.

19See http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/02/us/punitive-damages-denied-in-beating-of-rodney-king.html?pagewanted=1.

20See San Jose Charter of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose (9th 2005) 402 F.3d 963.  ("When the entry team approached the Vieiras' gate, three large dogs resembling Bullmastiffs emerged and ran toward the gate barking and growling.  As the officers stuck their hands through the fence to cut the lock, one of the dogs jumped and snapped at their hands.  Although the SJPOs were armed with pepper spray, no officer attempted to use the spray to subdue the dogs.  Instead, Officer Nieves attempted to scare the dogs away by yelling at them and pushing one of the dogs back with the barrel of his shotgun.  The dogs, however, would not retreat, and the persistent barking caused Officer Nieves to fear that the surprise of the mission might be compromised.  Officer Nieves pointed his shotgun at one of the barking dogs and shot it. The first dog went down, but the second dog did not retreat.  Officer Nieves shot at the second dog twice, critically wounding it, causing it and the third dog to retreat.  Although he had already shot the first dog at point blank range, Officer Nieves testified that the dog "was apparently trying to get back up ... [a]nd in an effort to ensure that he wasn't going to attack or be a problem for the team," Officer Nieves fired a fourth shot at the dog's head, killing it.")


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