Supreme Court Overturns Unique Police Liability Law

There is always a delicate line to tow in order to balance the need for police officers to be able to do their job and protect themselves and us with the need for private citizens to be able to sue when police overstep boundaries. A recent Supreme Court case may have made it more difficult for victims to file lawsuits against police when they break into private citizen’s homes wrongfully.

Shooting in Private Residence Leads to Suit

In 2010, police were called to a home of someone believed to be armed and dangerous. They entered the property without a warrant and noticed a shed or shack in the back of the home. The officers approached it. They entered the shed, startling a man who was living there at the time and sleeping inside of it. The man, startled, had a BB gun, reached for it, and the officers shot him.

The Ninth Circuit in California has a unique rule that although police can shoot in defense of themselves, they are liable for any injury they cause if their actions provoked the encounter which led to the need to defend themselves, and if their actions were unconstitutional. In other words, even an officer’s reasonable use of force to defend him or herself will be illegal if the encounter was started by an unconstitutional and reckless act by the police.

As a result, the man sued, and recovered a verdict against the police department. The police appealed the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Eliminates Law

The Supreme Court noted the long line of cases that defined what reasonable force was, and when it was to be applied. Certainly, in many cases, an officer’s use of force that violates the constitution is unreasonable and can give rise to civil liability.

The problem with this law, however, was that it looked back in time: That is, even if the officer’s use of force was reasonable on its face, with no concurrent constitutional violation, a court could look back, and if it determined that events before the use of force were reckless, or constituted a separate constitutional violation, then the later, otherwise reasonable use of force, was legally deemed unreasonable. That, the Supreme Court said, was not permissible.

The Court also had problems with causation; the law was vague as to how connected a prior event had to be to “cause” the police to use otherwise reasonable force. The law did not use the normal “proximate cause” standard that the American Legal system applies in negligence cases.

Damages Can Still Lie for Constitutional Violations

The Court did say that damages that are proximately caused by constitutional violations by police, can still be recovered by victims.  Here, the Court did not find that the victim’s injuries were proximately caused by the police entering the property without a warrant. Although recovery was denied here, in most cases, a jury can still make the decision whether an injury is caused by police violations or not.

Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your injury or liability case.