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How to Sue the Police for Excessive Force?

A policeman walking by a patrol car on the street

A person can bring a civil lawsuit against an individual law enforcement officer for the use of excessive force. In certain situations, the person can sue the officer’s supervisor for the conduct of the subordinate. The person may also sue the municipality itself if it has a rule or policy statement that contributed to the use of excessive force. The use of excessive force by police officers violates the 4th and 8th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. A victim of excessive force has a right to obtain monetary compensation by suing the liable law enforcement officer or other potentially liable parties. 

Most law enforcement officers adhere to standard practices. Some law enforcement officers overstep their legal bounds either intentionally or mistakenly. A person whose civil rights have been violated by a law enforcement officer should work closely with an attorney to determine the best action to take. 

The attorney can assemble sufficient evidence and convincing arguments to maximize the chances of the victim obtaining compensation. The attorney may also push to have the liable officer disciplined or dismissed from the law enforcement job. The court reviews the evidence and arguments presented to determine whether the officer used excessive force or acted within the confines of Nevada laws. 

What is Excessive Force? 

The definition of excessive force varies with the circumstances leading to the alleged violation. A person can be a victim of excessive force during an arrest, while in jail awaiting trial, or when convicted and in prison. 

There is a limit to the amount of force police officers can use when performing their duties. This force should not exceed the minimum necessary to quell an incident when making an arrest, interrogating a suspect, or holding inmates.

The amount of force used should match the threat matrix posed to the officers. The force used should be enough to protect the officer and any other person from harm by the uncooperative suspect. Exceeding the minimum required amount of force amounts to a violation of the suspect’s rights. 

The use of excessive force is a breach of the 4th amendment’s prohibition on unjustifiable search and seizure. The use of physical force must cease immediately the suspect no longer poses a threat. Police officers should have adequate training on the best way to defuse potentially volatile situations while at work.

Law enforcement officers should rely on their training to calm down a dangerous standoff. In excessive force cases, the judge reminds the jury members to put themselves in the shoes of the arresting officer in reaching a verdict. 

What are Examples of Excessive Force?

Excessive Physical Force        

Police belts contain a gun, taser, baton, chemical spray, knife, and handcuffs. Despite that, Nevada law prohibits law enforcement officers from touching people unnecessarily. Physically assaulting an already captured and subdued suspect amounts to the use of excessive physical force. 

Other common examples of excessive physical force include sexual assault, unlawful strip search, unnecessary restraints, and pepper-spraying an otherwise peaceful demonstration. Law enforcement officers guilty of using excessive physical force may face both civil and criminal charges. 

Unnecessary Bites or Mauls by Police Dogs (“K9”)

In Nevada, police work alongside trained dogs known as K9 units. These animals assist the officers with police tasks, such as retrieving cadavers, search and rescue missions, narcotics and bomb searches, finding contraband items like guns, and tracking down suspects. Police officers often use these canines to apprehend suspects who do not want to be arrested voluntarily.

Sometimes, these police dogs get out of control and inflict serious harm and injury on the non-corporative suspects. It is not unheard of for these canines to cause fatalities. Victims of such atrocities have a constitutional right to seek compensatory damages from the police officer(s) involved and their employers.

An unnecessary bite by a police dog amounts to the use of excessive force. Before reaching a verdict, the court assesses the severity of the dog bites. It also considers the threat level posed by the injured suspect. For instance, was the victim armed? How critical was it to apprehend the suspect? Did the police dog follow the officer’s command? And, did the law enforcement officer act maliciously when unleashing the canine units on the suspect? 

If the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, then that qualifies as a use of excessive force. The court must see that the officers had no other alternative than to use deadly force to apprehend the suspects. The law requires arresting officers to use moderate force, such as pepper spray and tasers, to apprehend and arrest uncooperative and armed suspects.

Filing a Police Dog Bite Claim 

Under Nevada laws, residents can seek compensation for unnecessary police dog bites. A victim of police dog bite injury can contest that his or her Fourth Amendment rights were violated and claim compensatory damages. The victim commences the claim process by filing a government tort claim. 

The victim waits for a response from the government. The plaintiff can file a lawsuit if the government fails to respond within the specified amount of time or rejects the claim. 

The victim can receive compensation for the medical bills incurred and pain and suffering endured through the lawsuit. If the bite injuries rendered the victim unable to work, the victim might be entitled to compensation for lost wages both in the present and future. 

Dog bite cases are more straightforward if the plaintiff is an innocent bystander. The same cannot be said when the victim is a wanted and uncooperative suspect. These lawsuits target the police dog handlers, the police chief’s or sheriff’s office, and the police department. 

The accused law enforcement officers may invoke the qualified immunity clause to avoid liability. The officers might argue that they acted in good faith and per the professional code of ethics. 

Dog bite victims have a two-year statute of limitations to press charges against the liable police officer. If the victim fails to file a police dog injury claim within two years from the date of the bite, the victim may lose the right to compensation. The victim stands a better chance of obtaining fair compensation by working with an attorney who understands the legal procedures of civil rights lawsuits against government agencies.

Other Forms of Police Misconduct in Nevada 

False Imprisonments, False Arrests, or Illegal Detentions

Arresting someone under pretense violates his or her freedom and is a crime. Detaining someone longer than is legally permitted for interrogations is also illegal. The police must have reasonable cause to detain a suspect longer than necessary. Nevada law prohibits police officers from holding a person in custody for more than 24 hours without formally charging the person. 

False imprisonment includes cornering someone against the wall and detaining a person in a room without probable cause. Other instances that qualify as unlawful imprisonment are confining someone in a moving vehicle against his or her will. For the violation to be valid, the defendant must have issued threats along with the illegal confinement. 

Nevada law (NRS 200.460) considers false imprisonment a crime. It can also amount to a civil lawsuit for compensatory damages. A police officer found guilty of false imprisonment may face a gross misdemeanor charge that attracts at least $2,000 in fines and/or a jail time of up to one year.

In Nevada, the police need an arrest warrant to place someone under arrest. Law enforcers must have probable cause that the person they are arresting has committed a crime. At times, the police may place someone under arrest even when there is no valid warrant. This applies only if the police officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect has broken the law.

A victim of false imprisonment, false arrest, or unlawful detention can file a civil lawsuit against the responsible law enforcement officer. If the lawsuit is successful, the victim can recover economic and non-economic damages. The victim may, in certain instances, recover punitive damages as a punishment for the grossly negligent police officer. 

Racial profiling

Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement officers use prejudice when dealing with the public. Such officers harass, detain, and even jail people based on their nationality, ethnicity, and race. Nevada prohibits any form of racial profiling.

Nevada continues to report racial profiling incidents regularly. Some studies have shown people of color tend to be pulled over more often than Caucasians. Other studies have shown people of color, including black Americans and Hispanics, are more likely to be picked up as suspects for drug possession compared to white people.  

Racial profiling is prevalent in jails and prisons. This misconduct occurs during arrests and car searches. It also happens at traffic stops, border crossings, and airports. A person racially profiled and subjected to excessive physical force during security screening at the airport can file a lawsuit against TSA.  

Profiling people based on race, nationality, or religion goes against the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The victim is denied his or her right to be protected by the constitution. Officers need to justify reasonable suspicion and probable cause before frisking any suspect. The authorities should not contextualize the suspect’s race, ethnicity, or other pre-judgmental factors when making their decisions. 

Victims of this abuse have a right to recover damages in a Section 1983 lawsuit. They may get compensated for accumulated medical bills, lost earnings, missed wages, and pain and suffering. The court may award punitive damages to the plaintiffs if the police officers acted maliciously. The court may also order the defendants to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. 

A Section 1983 lawsuit often targets the police officer (s) involved in the matter, the police chief (or sheriff), or the entire police department. At times, the lawsuit may be against the county or city. In most instances, the attorneys prefer to sue both the individual officers and the entire police department. The reason is that the police department is in a much better position to pay a larger settlement than an individual law enforcement officer.    

How Much Force is Too Much Force? 

A force that exceeds what a reasonable law enforcement officer believes is necessary to resolve a situation is considered too much force. A law enforcement officer can face legal consequences for using too much force during a Terry Stop, arrest, or other seizures. The officer may also face legal consequences for not stopping another law enforcement officer from using too much force.

The level of force a law enforcement officer should use ranges from direct verbal warnings and physical restraints to less-lethal force and lethal force as a last option. The force necessary varies with the situation. Due to these variations, guidelines for the use of force are hinged on many factors, such as the police officer’s level of training or experience. 

An officer should focus on mitigating an incident as soon as possible while ensuring public safety and health. Use of force should be the officer’s last resort – a necessary measure to restore safety when other methods fail to work.

What is the Difference between Police Brutality and Excessive Force?

Police brutality occurs when law enforcement officers use force that goes beyond the reasonable amount required to manage a situation, protect themselves, or others from bodily injury or threats of harm. Police brutality often arises during an arrest. 

Excessive force occurs when permitted government officials, including law enforcement officers, use force that surpass the minimum amount of force required to resolve a problem, protect themselves, or others from physical harm or threats of bodily injury. Excessive force may arise in different contexts, including when dealing with prisoners or during military operations. 

What are the Elements of Excessive Force in Nevada? 

The court reviews specific facts of the situation when deciding whether the level of force used breached the U.S. constitution. The elements of excessive force in Nevada include: 

  • The seriousness of the crime in question 
  • Whether the suspect posed an imminent threat of physical harm to the officer or others
  • Whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or trying to flee 
  • The force required versus the force used
  • The injuries sustained by the suspect 
  • The efforts made by the officers to prevent injuring the suspect 

Why is Excessive Force Used?

Law enforcement officers may use excessive force either deliberately or by mistake. This misconduct can occur in a squad car, on the streets, at home, in the precinct, or in jail. The common causes of this police misconduct include inadequate training, peer pressure, prejudice, and poor judgment.

What Happens if the Police Use Excessive Force? 

If law enforcement officers use excessive force, they may face a criminal and civil lawsuit. If the officer enters a guilty plea or is found guilty, the officer may face jail time, hefty fines, and dismissal from the law enforcement job. If the court finds the officer liable in a civil lawsuit, it will require the officer to pay compensatory damages to the plaintiff. Law enforcement officers accused of using excessive force may invoke qualified immunity or color of law principles to defend their actions.

Color of Law

The legal principle implies that the involved officers used excessive force, but they only resorted to such drastic actions to enforce a law. The courts will be interested in learning whether these officers were appropriately dressed in police uniform and informed the suspect that they were police officers.

The court will also want to know if the officers had the necessary police paraphernalia, like a squad car, handcuffs, and weapons, and were supposed to be on duty at the time of the incident. Apart from “color of law,” the officers might use qualified immunity to defend their actions. 

Qualified Immunity

In Nevada, the qualified immunity principle offers government officials, including law enforcement officers, immunity from civil lawsuits. This principle protects police officers while discharging their duties, such as making arrests. This protection ceases when the arresting officers act in bad faith. The qualified immunity principle does not apply if the jury finds that the officers overstepped their job mandates.

Suing the Officer’s Supervisor 

The plaintiff’s lawsuit may target the officer’s supervisor in what is known as “supervisory liability.” Despite a recent ruling whereby the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge supervisory liability lawsuits, some lower courts in Nevada may recognize certain aspects of the theory. 

Suing the Municipality

Victims of excessive use of police force may recover damages from the local governing body. This governing body is usually a city that serves as the employer of the accused law enforcement officer. These claims are referred to as “Monell claims.” 

In a Monell claim, the plaintiff needs to prove that a city directly contributed to the use of excessive force. A city may encourage the use of excessive force through a formal guideline or policy statement, the approval of the decision by a final policymaker, and the failure to sufficiently train or supervise employees.   

When Can Law Enforcement Officers in Nevada Use Deadly Force? 

Nevada law allows law enforcement officers to use deadly force when necessary in apprehending or arresting a suspect. The officer should use deadly force only if the suspect is dangerous and resisting arrest. In such a situation, the officer can use verbal warnings to make an arrest. The officer may subdue the suspect using “moderate force,” such as pepper spray, batons, or tasers. 

The law allows police to use deadly force to stop a dangerous suspect attempting to escape arrest. The officer must use a reasonable amount of force to prevent the escape. The officer must first issue a verbal warning (if possible) before using deadly force. 

The Nevada law permits law enforcement officers to use lethal force when necessary in recapturing an escaped felonious inmate. The officer may use deadly force, for instance, if the escaped felonious inmate is armed and resisting recapture. 

Nevada law allows police to lawfully use deadly force when necessary to stop a riot or maintain peace. Lethal force may be justified in suppressing violent and messy unrests that endanger the safety and health of others.

Nevada law enforcement officers may use deadly force when necessary to protect themselves or others. This applies when there is an imminent threat to the life of the officer or another person.

Police Brutality in Nevada

From 2013 to 2019, there were an estimated 121 police brutality deaths in Nevada. Over 95% of these fatalities were men. Gunshots accounted for most of these fatalities. Most of the people killed were in the age group of 21 to 30, followed by 31 to 40. In the last six years, only one child under ten years was killed by police.

Apart from guns, tasers and stun gun injuries have also caused fatalities in some instances. That’s despite stun guns getting lauded as a safer policing alternative compared to guns. Stun guns are particularly harmful when used on people with underlying medical conditions. They can cause heart attacks and metabolic acidosis. 

 The Burden of Proof in a Civil Suit

The plaintiff has the burden of proof in a civil suit. The plaintiff must demonstrate the liability of the law enforcement officer by a “preponderance of evidence” – which means more likely than not. The defendant (the accused officer) must demonstrate by the same standard that the conduct in question was legally justifiable. The law does not allow the defendant to base the defense on the premise that the arrested suspect was later found guilty of breaking the law. 

Getting Aggressive Legal Representation in Cases Involving Excessive Force 

An aggressive Nevada personal injury lawyer can review a case involving excessive force by law enforcement officers to determine its strength. The attorney can walk the plaintiff through the time limits and administrative procedures associated with these cases.  

An attorney who knows what the Nevada law says about immunity and the burden of proof can help the plaintiff recover maximum compensation for injuries or losses incurred. With the legal support of an aggressive personal injury attorney, the plaintiff can overcome government immunity. 

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Las Vegas Personal Injury Lawyer Cliff Marcek

Mr. Marcek has published several legal articles, been a featured speaker on legal topics and has represent several clients pro bono during his career. In addition, Mr. Marcek was a member of the Attorney Generals Commission on Military Assistance in 2015.

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