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How Fourth Amendment Police Misconduct Cases Work

If you’ve been illegally seized by police or other law enforcement, you may be able to bring a claim against the government to recover for your injuries. These cases are brought under 42 USC §1983; a federal statute which allows individuals to sue the government for violations of their civil rights.

Elements Required for Proving a Police Misconduct Claim

Understanding when you may have a claim can be difficult. The laws in this area are complex, but there are several basic requirements:

Police Misconduct

  1. You must have suffered a seizure, as the law defines that term;
  2. That seizure must have been performed by a government actor, such as a police officer;
  3. That seizure must have been unreasonable under the circumstances of your case; and
  4. You must have suffered an injury of some sort as a result of the seizure.

Even if you are able to establish these requirements, you must also make sure that none of the defenses available to the government agent is applicable.

What Constitutes a Fourth Amendment Seizure

The Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” An individual is seized when “by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained.” United States v Mendenhall, 446 US 544, 546 (1980). If, however, the “person to whom questions are put remains free to disregard the questions and walk away, there has been no intrusion upon that person’s liberty or privacy as would under the Constitution require some particularized and objective justification.” Id. at 547.

It should be noted that seizures are not specifically limited to the detainment of an individual.  Any mechanism deployed by law enforcement officials to impede an individual’s movement may constitute a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. Brower v Inyo County, 489 US 593 (1989); where individual driving a stolen car and being pursued by police was killed after hitting a police barricade designed to stop him, the Court found that the suspect had been seized because his death had occurred “through means intentionally applied.” See alsoTennessee v Garner, 471 US 1 (1985), finding that a suspected thief who was shot and killed while being pursued by law enforcement had been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Reasonableness Requirement

Once it has been determined that the Plaintiff was in fact seized, the focus must turn to the reasonableness of the force exerted on the Plaintiff by the law enforcement officer. Lifting directly from the Fourth Amendment’s textual focus on reasonableness, the United States Supreme Court has held that:

[D]etermining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake. 

Graham v Connor, 490 US 386, 396 (1989). 

The Court has further defined that:

The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. . . Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

Id. at 396-397.

Finally, the Court noted that the focus must be on whether the actions were “objectively reasonable,” as opposed to a subjective standard. What the specific officer believed was reasonable is irrelevant unless the reasonable officer in the same situation would have reacted in the same manner.  Id.