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How Do I Sue the Police for Violating My Civil Rights?

Law Office of Bruce C. Betzer May 6, 2024

Being confronted by a police officer can be a stressful and intimidating experience. However, if you believe that the police have violated your civil rights, you may have grounds to take legal action against them.  

While pursuing legal action against a police officer can be complex and overwhelming, understanding what constitutes a civil rights violation by a police officer and the available paths you have for filing a lawsuit are essential to seeking justice. 

Our team at the Law Office of Bruce C. Betzer can outline the steps for filing a civil rights lawsuit against a police officer and explore the scope of your rights if you've experienced police misconduct. 

Understanding Your Rights When Dealing With the Police 

Every U.S. citizen has certain civil liberties that are meant to ensure a fair and just society. However, encounters with law enforcement can often lead to their infringement. Knowing your rights when interacting with the police in Louisiana is crucial.  

Louisiana follows both state laws and federal protections when it comes to civil rights. Article 1 Section 5 of the Louisiana State Constitution, adopted from the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, guards against illegal searches and seizures. If a police officer stops you, you have certain rights:  

  • Right to remain silent: You are not obligated to answer questions about where you are going, where you are traveling from, what you are doing, or whether you have been drinking. If you wish to exercise this right, you should inform the officer.  

  • Right to refuse a search of yourself, your car, or your home: You have the right to deny search and seizure unless the officer can present a warrant or there are exigent circumstances that justify a search. 

  • Right to discern detainment: If a police officer stops you for an unknown reason, they have the right to detain you for up to two hours. After that time has passed, they must either release you or arrest you. You have the right to ask whether you are being detained. If you are not, you have the legal right to leave. 

  • Right to legal counsel: If you are being questioned by the police, you have the right to request an attorney. This can help protect your rights and ensure that proper procedures are followed during the questioning process. 

Though these rights are meant to protect you, not all officers adhere to them, which can lead to situations of abuse of power (commonly known as police brutality). Knowing how to recognize when these rights are compromised is the first step toward seeking justice. 

What Constitutes Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Violations? 

Police misconduct involves unlawful actions taken by police officers in connection with their official duties. Civil rights violations by the police can encompass a wide range of actions that impinge upon the rights guaranteed by the Louisiana Constitution and U.S. Constitution. Some of the most common forms of civil rights violations include: 

  • Excessive Force: Using more physical force than is necessary to subdue a suspect or during an arrest. This is often what comes to mind first when thinking of police brutality

  • False Arrest: Detaining an individual without reasonable suspicion or evidence to believe they have committed a crime. 

  • Racial Profiling: Targeting individuals for stops, searches, or detainment based purely on their race rather than reasonable suspicion of their involvement in criminal activity. 

  • Sexual Assault: Any form of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature by a police officer. 

  • Fabricating Evidence: When police officers unlawfully create, alter, or tamper with evidence to strengthen a case against a suspect. 

  • Failure to Intervene: When a police officer does not stop another officer from engaging in criminal behavior or violating a citizen's rights. 

  • Illegal Search and Seizure: Searching a person or their property without a valid warrant, probable cause, or the individual's consent, which violates the Fourth Amendment. 

Police officers are held to high standards of conduct, as they have the power to enforce laws and exert authority over citizens. If you have experienced any of these violations of your rights from a police officer, you may have grounds to file a civil rights lawsuit. 

How to File a Civil Rights Lawsuit Against the Police 

Misconduct by law enforcement is an unfortunate reality. Filing a lawsuit against such actions underscores the importance of clarity and accountability. If you find yourself a victim of police misconduct, it's important to follow these steps: 

  1. Consult with an attorney: Consult with an attorney who is experienced in civil rights law immediately following the incident. They will be able to assess your case and advise you on the best course of action. 

  1. Gather and preserve evidence: Collect documented evidence of the misconduct or violation of your rights. This could include photos, videos, witness statements, medical records, and communications with the police department. Additionally, write down the names and badge numbers of the officers involved. 

  1. File a complaint with the appropriate agency: Before filing a lawsuit, it's necessary to file a complaint with the appropriate agency, whether it's the police department's internal affairs unit or another government agency responsible for investigating civil rights violations. 

  1. File a lawsuit: If your complaint is not resolved satisfactorily, you may proceed with filing a lawsuit against the police officer and potentially other liable parties with the help of your attorney. 

  1. Attend court proceedings: You will need to attend court proceedings, which may include depositions, hearings, and a trial. During this period, your attorney will handle most of the legal aspects on your behalf. 

  1. Seek fair compensation: If you are successful in your lawsuit, you may be entitled to financial compensation for damages such as medical expenses, lost wages, and emotional distress. 

The threshold for a successful civil rights claim is demonstrating that the officer's actions were out of line with established police practice and directly caused harm. It's not about simply proving that you were treated unfairly but establishing a clear violation of your constitutional rights. 

Understanding Section 1983 

Under the U.S. Code, Section 1983 allows any individual to file a claim against state actors who, while operating within their official capacities, violated an individual's constitutional rights. This means you can sue not just the officer but also the local government or police department. 

To achieve success with a Section 1983 claim, you must establish that a constitutional right was violated, that the government official acted under color of state law, and that there were "damages" in the form of physical injury, property damage, financial loss, or emotional distress.  

In Louisiana, the statute of limitations for filing a Section 1983 claim is usually within one year from the date of the violation. While police officers can often employ qualified immunity as a defense strategy in Section 1983 cases, an experienced attorney can help you build a compelling case to show that the officer's conduct violated "clearly established law." 

Seek Experienced Legal Support 

If you or a loved one has been a victim of police misconduct, seeking legal guidance is a critical first step to pursuing justice. At the Law Office of Bruce C. Betzer, we can help you understand your rights and the legal tools at your disposal and help you take decisive steps to sue police officers who violated your civil rights. 

Located in Metairie, Louisiana, we proudly serve clients throughout Chalmette, New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, and St. Tammany Parish. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.