We get more calls about this than any other kind of case. This is great because it shows that now more than ever citizens are willing to take action to defend their rights! But before you decide to jump into the mosh pit of civil rights litigation or have a mud wrestling contest with Officer Friendly, here are some things that you might want to consider. Please note that this is general information and is not a substitute for competent legal advice.
Some of the things you can sue for
You can sue the police if you are arrested without a warrant and without probable cause.
You can sue the sue the police, jail or prison officers if you suffered injury from excessive force. There is no bright line here as to what is excessive. Force must be reasonable under the circumstances.
You can sue the police if your property is seized without a warrant and without probable cause.
You can sue the police if they manufacture false evidence or commit perjury in court proceedings.
You can sue the jail or prison officials for being deliberately indifferent to serious medical needs and their failure to provide care caused serious illness or injury.
You can sue the jail or prison prison officials if you were injured because you were intentionally put in a dangerous situation.
You can sue if have been arrested, jailed, or have otherwise suffered damages based on an a statute or ordinance that violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Some Reasons not to Sue
You can't sue for false arrest if you are convicted of the crime that led to your arrest.
You should consider not suing if injuries or damages are minimal. Suing the police is difficult and expensive. If your damages are limited to having spent a few hours in jail, your case may not be worth pursuing. Lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis (no fee if no recovery) will probably not want to accept your case if your damages are minimal.
You should consider not suing if you don't want your privacy invaded or there is something in your background that you might not wish to reveal. Once you become a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit for damages your life and your background become an open book. This is particularly true if you are claiming damages for emotional distress.
You are likely to lose if you were wrongfully arrested but the law is unclear and the officers had a good faith belief they were acting according to the law.
You may not have much of a case if there are no witnesses and no other evidence to corroborate your claim. You are unlikely to win a swearing contest with the cops regardless of whether you are telling the truth.
Your lawsuit will be dismissed if you waited too long and the statute of limitations has run on your claim.
Who You Can't Sue
Judges acting in their role as judges
Prosecutors acting in their role as prosecutors
The State if you are asking for an injunction.
Cities and counties unless: (1) the action or inaction was authorized by a high level official; (2) the action or inaction was part of a policy, custom or regular practice of the city or county; (3) the action or inaction was the result of a failure to train the officer(s) who committed the violation of your constitutional rights.
A Cautionary Word
The Civil Rights Act - Title 42 United States Code Section 1983 - is a special statute that provides a remedy including monetary damages for violation of your rights under the U.S. Constitution. There are a number of special rules and requirements that are unique to Civil Rights litigation. The statute does not provide a remedy for every act of negligence or misconduct committed by police, jail or prison officials. While it may be an unconscious bias, most judges and juries tend to favor the police and give them the benefit of the doubt. Think in terms of the “thin blue line”. Also police tend to have good attorneys who are paid by the hour and the insurance company isn't going to write you a check just because you filed a lawsuit. The bottom line is if you decide to sue the cops, you will want to have a strong case on liability with some serious damages or the case probably isn't worth the pursuing.