Law enforcement officers have the difficult job of ensuring the public safety and must sometimes even place themselves at risk to do so. These men and women are deserving of respect and are rightfully protected by law from liability for their innocent mistakes. Nevertheless, when law enforcement officers step outside the scope of their official duties and cause injury to members of the public, they can and should be held responsible for the results of their actions. Under Georgia law, a law enforcement officer commits false arrest—also known as false imprisonment—when he deprives a person of his personal liberty by unlawfully detaining him for any length of time.
Private companies and individuals may also be liable for false arrests, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution if their actions were intentionally wrongful or negligent and led to an arrest or detention. In fact, most of our false arrest cases involve private businesses whose employees over-reacted to a situation, or simply failed to follow proper policies, when reporting what they believed to be a crime to law enforcement.
Simply detaining a person who has committed no crime is not enough to constitute false arrest. When an officer has probable cause to believe that an arrest is authorized, both the office and the state will be protected by immunity from civil liability. However, when an officer makes an arrest without probable cause and with malice or knowledge of illegality, the officer is no longer acting within the scope of his official duties and may be held liable for his actions. Where probable cause is clearly absent, an officer’s malice can be inferred from the surrounding circumstances. However, where an officer makes an arrest pursuant to a warrant and with a good faith belief that the warrant is valid, he will not be liable for false arrest if the warrant is ultimately shown to be invalid.
Having probable cause is a necessity before making an arrest, but a criminal suspect’s rights do not end when a police officer lawfully arrests him. Police are not authorized to use excessive force—commonly referred to as police brutality—when arresting a suspect. Excessive force may range from something relatively minor like slamming a suspect against the hood of a car while handcuffing him to more extreme acts such as criminal assault, rape, or murder. An example of excessive force found more and more often is the use of Tasers and stun guns on suspects who are not posing a physical threat to the officers or attempting to flee.
In many cases it will be difficult to prove that a police officer used excessive force in making an arrest. Where the evidence is solely the word of an arrestee against that of a police officer, success is less likely (though not impossible). Ideally, a lawsuit for use of excessive force will be supported by clear evidence that a police officer acted illegally. In every case, it is imperative to gather evidence and interview witnesses as soon as possible to ensure that there will be a sufficient basis for a lawsuit. Because of this it is essential to speak with an attorney immediately when you or a family member have been victimized by law enforcement.
In most cases where an individual sues the government for an injury, the lawsuit will be filed in state court. However, because false arrests and excessive force injuries involve violations of rights under the U.S. Constitution, it is also possible to file suit in federal court. Lawsuits against state employees and state governments based on violation of constitutional rights are authorized under federal law in 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A Section 1983 claim may also be brought by prisoners who have been abused by prison officials, another type of “excessive force” by government employees that violates constitutional rights.
The types of damages available in false arrest and excessive force cases will depend on the individual facts of a case and what injuries can reasonably be proven. Generally, damages that can be recovered either in a state court lawsuit or in federal court under Section 1983 include lost wages, medical expenses, damage to property, emotional distress, and injury to reputation. Punitive damages are also available as a means of punishing especially egregious behavior. An experienced victim’s rights attorney will be able to advise you about specific damages you may be entitled to.
The information provided above is a very general summary of the law at the time this text was prepared. Because this analysis is subject to change depending upon recent cases and legal developments, you should not rely on this summary as legal advice. As with any important legal question, you should always consult a lawyer licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Our lawyers are licensed to practice in all state and federal courts in Georgia and in many other federal courts across the country.
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