Questions often arise as to the rights of the citizen who claims police brutality and personal injury before, during, or after an arrest. Does such an individual have a cause of action against the allegedly offending police officer and the municipality or the state that employs him?
The answer depends on several factors. First, and generally, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits illegal searches and seizures which include the use of unreasonable force against a person used by an officer in the performance of his duty. In addition, under established common law and case precedent, an arresting officer can employ only that degree of force required by the circumstances then and there existing at the time, which includes: the nature of the offense or crime; the resistance offered by the one arrested; and any other factors that would justify the exercise of force.
In essence, the law provides no right to a police officer to use excessive force in the arrest process when either no force is required. If force is necessary, it must be reasonably responsive and measured by the circumstances that exist at the time. Therefore, should force be used that goes beyond what is reasonable under the circumstances, and should such force cause injury to the one against whom it is used, both the police officer, and the municipality, or state that employs him, will be held liable in damages.
The key word here is “reasonable”, and what is, or is not, “reasonable”, is a question of fact to be decided by a jury.
Cases brought in the New York State Court of Claims (tried by a judge without a jury) must follow strict rules within which to file a Notice of Claim or Notice of Intention.
Since under common law, no action could be brought against the King (the King, as sovereign, “could do no wrong”), most municipalities, as “sovereigns” follow the common law, but have permitted actions to be brought against them with specific limitations. These include: no punitive damages; no emotional damages; and strict time limits concerning the filing of a Notice of Claim and Notice of Intention to start an action. With few exceptions, late compliance will result in a dismissal of the case.
A recent case (Reynolds v. State of New York published in the New York Law Journal on August 22, 2012, Judge Midey) dealt with a motorist who was stopped by a New York State trooper, handcuffed and allegedly assaulted by the trooper who it later developed knew the claimant motorist from previous encounters, and who on this occasion, stopped the motorist on the trooper’s belief that the motorist was operating his vehicle without a license. The claimant charged the trooper with having targeted him based upon the trooper’s personal dislike of the motorist claimant. In fact, the motorist at the time he was stopped, claimed he had proof of his license in his wallet, which the trooper refused to give him the opportunity to produce, ordering the motorist to exit his car. The trooper then forcefully handcuffed him, striking his head against the trunk several times. A few minutes later, another trooper came upon the scene, after which the cuffs were removed; the motorist was permitted to produce his license, and subsequently released. Due to injuries sustained, all of which were recorded in the record of an emergency room, the claimant brought action against the State of New York and the trooper involved. After trial, the court found that the trooper exercised unreasonable force under the circumstances, and that the State, as the employer of the trooper, would be held liable for the injuries sustained by the motorist.
The Reynolds case is not an isolated one and should act as a warning to both police officers and citizens alike. As to the police officer, if you are found to have used excessive or unreasonable force upon a citizen thus causing injury, you and the municipality or State will be held liable. This inappropriate and unreasonable conduct can cost the municipality and tax payers many thousands of dollars and it may cost you a promotion, or even your job. (Fortunately, most police officers conduct their duties in a reasonable manner.) As for the citizen, if you are stopped by a police officer or placed under arrest, do not resist. Offer reasonable cooperation to the officer, thereby removing any motive for him to exercise force of any kind. And should you suffer an assault, report it immediately to the authorities, thus making a record. Further, should you suffer injuries, take photographs, and if necessary, report to an emergency room, giving an accurate history of the assault to an ER staff member as to how you sustained your injuries. Such steps will be extremely valuable to an experienced personal injury lawyer in the difficult litigation process whenever a municipality or State is a defendant.