Civil rights encompasses a broad range of personal liberties guaranteed under the Amendments to the United States Constitution, and by congressional statutes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many states do not provide extensive civil rights protections. For example, Virginia effectively passes nearly all of its potential civil rights cases on to the federal government, and provides limited protections for employees discriminated by employers whose total employees are between 6 - 14. Despite most government officials' best intentions to help the public, there are times where human prejudices or improper training can violate an individual's civil rights.
Law enforcement agencies are currently being scrutinized on a national level for discriminatory practices toward minorities, unlawful uses of force, and generally abusing their positions of authority. Although most law enforcement agents act with the best intentions and within the confines of the law while performing their duties, sometimes lapses in training or an overreaction to a stressful situation can lead police officers to commit brutal or unlawful acts upon suspects and even bystanders.
The courts recognize the difficulties that police officers face when trying to resolve dangerous and criminal circumstances, and the courts provide police officers with a lot of leeway to use their discretion. Law enforcement agents typically receive "qualified immunity" from lawsuits. Qualified immunity applies to all government officials unless: (1) a constitutional violation occurs based on the official's conduct; and (2) that the constitutional right was clearly established at the time so that a reasonable officer would know that his conduct was unlawful under the circumstances. Simply put, qualified immunity will not apply to police officers who should have known that what they were doing was unlawful. This protection assures that most police officers doing their jobs by appropriate training do not have to worry about lawsuits from disgruntled suspects/defendants, and that police officers who abuse their power can be brought to a citizen's justice.
In every police misconduct case, favorable evidence is often very difficult for plaintiffs to obtain as most of the police records reflect the police officers' version of events. It is important for plaintiffs to document any injuries suffered to their person or property at or immediately after a violent encounter with law enforcement agents. Most evidence to support a police misconduct case will have to be obtained through the court's discovery processes, which is why it is critical to retain an attorney knowledgeable about police misconduct cases to get the most evidence and best results.
There are three typical police misconduct cases that are brought to federal district court (although they can be brought in state courts): false arrest, excessive force, and malicious prosecution. These cases allege violations against a person's Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, and are commenced as 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (known as "section 1983") cases against local or state governments, and their law enforcement officers.
A section 1983 false arrest action can be brought when a law enforcement officer arrests a person without probable cause. Probable cause is determined from the arresting officer's perspective, under the totality of the circumstances, at the time of the arrest. This means that a police officer must have had a reasonable belief based upon the evidence known to her at the time that the arrestee had committed the charged crime. False arrest charges often occur in the context of disorderly conduct, or similar low-level crimes where police make an arrest without probable cause under the circumstances. It is rare, but sometimes police officers mistakenly or maliciously charge serious crimes without probable cause based upon unreasonable interpretations of available evidence. False arrests often result in time lost at work or school, a marred arrest record, public humiliation, and permanently shaken confidence in our criminal justice system.
Section 1983 excessive force claims can be brought when a law enforcement officer uses an unreasonable degree of force under the circumstances. The use of force to effect an arrest must be justified based on the threat presented, the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers, others, or himself, and whether the suspect is actively resisting the arrest or attempting to escape. A person instinctively resisting an arrest, such as trying to move arms or legs out of painful or uncomfortable positions do not justify an increased use of force. De minimis injuries (minimal injuries) are actionable under the Fourth Amendment, but most successful excessive force cases involve documented proof that the plaintiff required medical treatment after being subjected to inappropriate use of force.
A section 1983 malicious prosecution action can be brought when "the defendant (1) caused (2) a seizure of the plaintiff pursuant to legal process unsupported by probable cause, and (3) criminal proceedings terminated in plaintiff's favor." Evans v. Chambers, 703 F.3d 636, 647 (4th Cir. 2012). This cause of action concerns police officers or prosecutors who knowingly falsify evidence or fail to disclose exculpatory evidence in order to prosecute a person. If there is insufficient evidence to prove that the police or prosecutor knew of other evidence that could have exculpated the plaintiff, or that there is no evidence of falsified evidence used to pursue a prosecution, malicious prosecution cases will not prevail. Malicious prosecutions may result in wrongful convictions that are eventually overturned, significant time spent in jail, public embarrassment, and a permanent mistrust in our legal system.
The First Amendment protects a citizen's right to freedom of speech, and peacefully assemble with others. These protections apply only against government entities that attempt to restrict a citizen's speech.
Generally, governmental bodies can only restrict speech under limited circumstances such as to prevent disruptions to governmental functions, protect safety and security of others (prevent riotous or "hate" speech), and limit content of speech in inappropriate circumstances (ex: prevent obscene material in schools). Speech can include oral statements, writings, wearing apparel, refusing to speak, political contributions, and any other means of expressing a legally protected opinion.
Government employees' speech is also generally protected under the First Amendment (with limited exceptions), so a public employee cannot be discriminated against based upon speech. If a government body restricted or attempts to restrict a person's right to freedom of speech, a citizen may have a cause of action for violation of a First Amendment right. The citizen may be able to invalidate an inappropriate law that restricts free speech, or in the case of a discriminated government employee, he may be able to obtain injunctive relief (an order demanding the employer to cease an activity) and/or compensatory relief (money damages).