Is False Arrest a Civil Rights Violation?

When the police arrest you for a crime you didn’t commit, you may needlessly suffer financial and personal losses. However, when does a false or wrongful arrest constitute a civil rights violation? You may have a civil rights claim when police lack a lawful basis to arrest you or engage in wrongful conduct to facilitate your arrest.

Understanding False Arrest

A person's hands in handcuffs

Under the federal and state constitutions, people have protection from unreasonable seizure or deprivation of liberty without due process. A false arrest occurs when the police detain someone without a lawful basis to do so or without giving an arrestee due process. However, not every arrest of an innocent person represents a false arrest. The law recognizes that law enforcement officers can make honest mistakes. A false arrest does not occur when the police, based on the evidence available, reasonably believe that probable cause exists to arrest a suspect. A false arrest does not occur when police arrest someone based on a witness’s inaccurate information, such as a mistaken identification. Instead, false arrests occur when law enforcement officers act beyond the scope of their authority and power. False arrests typically involve wrongful conduct by the police.

Civil Rights During an Arrest

Individuals have various civil and constitutional rights during a law enforcement investigation and arrest. These rights include:

  • Freedom from unreasonable searches: Police usually must obtain a search warrant from the court to search a person or their vehicle, business, or home. Law enforcement must demonstrate to a judge that probable cause exists to search; a search warrant must describe the places officers will search and the items the police will seize if they find them. However, under certain circumstances, police may conduct a warrantless search, such as an inventory search of an impounded vehicle or a search of a person incident to their arrest.
  • Freedom from unreasonable seizures: Law enforcement must have probable cause to believe that a suspect committed a crime before they may arrest that suspect. The prohibition against unreasonable seizures also includes protection against excessive force during a detention or arrest.
  • The right to remain silent: After an arrest, a suspect has the right to remain silent, which entitles them to refuse to answer the police’s questions about criminal activity. Law enforcement may not compel a suspect to talk about their charges, including through physical or emotional/mental manipulation or torture.
  • The right to legal counsel: An arrestee also has the right to consult with an attorney before police questioning and to have an attorney present if they choose to answer questions. Once a suspect affirmatively invokes their right to speak to an attorney, the police must refrain from questioning until the suspect has talked to a lawyer. However, a suspect can voluntarily reinitiate a conversation with officers.

When Does a False Arrest Become a Civil Rights Violation?

A false arrest may lead to a civil rights claim when law enforcement officers engage in misconduct in arresting a suspect. Examples of conduct that might lead to a civil rights violation include:

  • Knowingly arresting a suspect with insufficient evidence to support probable cause
  • Malicious arrest, including arresting a suspect with discriminatory or retaliatory intent
  • Consciously disregarding exculpatory evidence
  • Manufacturing and planting evidence
  • Falsely testifying in an affidavit or in court to obtain an arrest warrant
  • Conducting knowingly unlawful searches and seizures to obtain evidence to support an arrest
  • Coercing false testimony from witnesses or admissions of guilt from suspects
  • Employing excessive force to effect an arrest

Challenges in Pursuing a Civil Rights Claim After a False Arrest

Pursuing a civil rights claim against law enforcement officers after an alleged false arrest can involve complex legal issues and other challenges. Many victims of false arrests file complaints with the internal affairs division of the law enforcement agency. However, internal affairs investigations often occur behind closed doors and frequently lead to no discipline against officers involved in an alleged false arrest.

Victims of false arrest can seek justice by filing a civil rights lawsuit. However, law enforcement officers and agencies have robust legal defenses to civil rights claims, including a qualified immunity defense. Law enforcement may have immunity from a civil rights claim if the department and officers show that they did not violate any clearly established right when arresting a suspect. Law enforcement agencies and officers can defend against a civil rights claim by proving they had probable cause to arrest the individual.

Relief Available in a Civil Rights Claim

A person subjected to a false arrest can pursue legal relief and justice through a civil rights claim under Section 1983 of the United States Code. This statute allows victims of false arrests to pursue monetary compensation for violations of their civil and constitutional rights. A successful civil rights claim may allow you to recover compensation for financial and personal losses such as:

  • Medical treatment and rehabilitation for injuries caused by excessive force
  • Lost wages/income due to missed time from work while falsely arrested or after losing your job due to a false arrest
  • Damaged reputation from the stigma of an arrest and prosecution
  • Emotional trauma and distress

How Can an Attorney Help After a False Arrest

Holding law enforcement accountable for your false arrest can become time-consuming and stressful. However, you don’t have to stand up to law enforcement alone. An attorney can help you advocate for your rights and demand justice for the harm and loss you’ve suffered. Legal counsel can thoroughly investigate the circumstances of your arrest to obtain evidence supporting your claim, including police records, dashcam/bodycam footage, and eyewitness testimony. Your attorney can evaluate your legal options and identify the officers who may bear liability for your arrest. Your attorney can also gather evidence to support your compensation claim, including documenting medical expenses and lost wages and advocating for your right to financial recovery for personal/emotional loss.

Contact the Law Office of Case J. Darwin Today

When you’ve become the victim of a false arrest, you may have the right to seek financial recovery and justice in a civil rights claim. Contact the Law Office of Case J. Darwin today for a free, confidential consultation to discuss your legal options with our experienced team.

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