POLICE MISCONDUCT AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Police officers generally have broad powers to carry out their duties. The Constitution and other laws, however, place limits on how far police can go in trying to enforce the law. When this happens, the victim of the misconduct may have recourse through federal and state laws. A primary purpose of the nation's civil rights laws is to protect citizens from abuses by government, including police misconduct.
Being stopped and questioned by police in connection with a crime is an unsettling experience for most anyone. As long as the officer is performing his job properly, however, there is no violation of a suspect's rights. In fact, police are immune from suit for the performance of their jobs unless willful, unreasonable conduct is demonstrated. Mere negligence, the failure to exercise due care, is not enough to create liability. Immunity therefore means that in the typical police-suspect interaction, the suspect cannot sue the police. Civil rights remedies come into play for willful police conduct that violates an individual's constitutional rights.
Civil Rights Laws and Police Misconduct
A statute known as Section 1983 is the primary civil rights law victims of police misconduct rely upon. This law was originally passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was intended to curb oppressive conduct by government and private individuals participating in vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. It is now called Section 1983 because that is where the law has been published, within Title 42, of the United States Code. Section 1983 makes it unlawful for anyone acting under the authority of state law to deprive another person of his or her rights under the Constitution or federal law. The most common claims brought against police officers are false arrest (or false imprisonment), malicious prosecution, and use of excessive or unreasonable force.
The claim that is most often asserted against police is false arrest. Persons bringing this claim assert that police violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. If the officer had probable cause to believe the individual had committed a crime, the arrest is reasonable and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. Police can arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence. Even if the information the officer relied upon later turns out to be false, the officer is not liable if he believed it was accurate at the time of the arrest. To prevail on a false arrest claim, the victim must show that the arresting officer lacked probable cause.