Excessive Force

The vast majority of Philadelphia police officers work hard to defend and protect residents from harm. They serve the public with the ethical and moral standards required to wear their badges.

Of course, others abuse their power. Research shows that police misconduct, including the use of excessive force, is contagious among officers of the law.

Local and county police, as well as prison officers and the state highway patrol, may use excessive force—which is a clear violation of civil rights. You should have a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes excessive force and your protections under the law.

If you have been victimized by an officer of the law, federal law permits you to seek compensation for damages in civil court. An officer who abused his or her authority and used excessive force against you may be liable for damages. An experienced police brutality attorney can advocate for you, holding those officers who caused you harm accountable for their actions. Contact The Zeiger Firm to set up a free consultation to discuss the circumstances of your case.

What Constitutes Excessive Force?

In a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, researchers discovered one of the central issues is determining when force is necessary and when it becomes excessive. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court held that courts must apply the standard of objective reasonableness to assess the use of force. However, quantifying what constitutes excessive force is subjective and often not an easy task. The International Association of Chiefs of Police maintains an appropriate level of force is that necessary to “compel compliance from an unwilling subject.”

Many different organizations, police forces, and some laws offer guidelines for law enforcement. However, no hard rules exist to regulate how and when police officers use force. Instead, each case gets judged on whether force was necessary, unwarranted, or an abuse of police power. To curb claims about excessive use of force, some jurisdictions have implemented detailed policies and training procedures.

For example, police officers are trained on firing weapons at moving vehicles and the specific rules to follow when in pursuit. Many police departments create a continuum when developing policies about the use of force. This design allows for different levels of force based on circumstances. Below is an example of a “use of force continuum“ offered by the National Institute of Justice.

  • Officer presence. When police are present, officers can deter crime or diffuse an ongoing situation. In these scenarios, officers act in a professional and non-threatening manner. Departments believe this is the ideal way to resolve a situation.
  • Verbalization. Officers of the law verbalize calm commands and possibly raise their voices to get someone to comply. Examples include, “Please give me your driver’s license and vehicle registration,” “Stop!” or “Don’t Move.”
  • Empty-hand control. Officers use only their bodies to control a situation, which can include softer approaches such as a lock or grab. Empty-hand control also includes more forceful techniques such as punches and kicks.
  • Less-lethal methods. In these situations, law enforcement officers might use a baton, taser, pepper spray, or other non-lethal tools to gain control.
  • Lethal force. Of course, this includes the use of any lethal weapon, most often a gun.

A force continuum can be problematic for defining excessive force because lethal force is not always excessive. Real world situations typically aren’t black and white. Determining the particular category and level of force an officer should use can be difficult. Proportionality is often the key to determining whether a police officer is overstepping his or her authority. Force is always excessive if imposed without an arrest, without resistance, or continues after the citizen is in custody.

Pennsylvania’s Law About the Use of Force

Pennsylvania laws regulate the use of force in the criminal justice system. In Pennsylvania, a police officer does not have to stop or retreat from making a lawful arrest if a citizen resists or threatens resistance. The law justifies the use of necessary force to make an arrest, defend oneself, and defend others. Officers may only use deadly force when they believe it is necessary to prevent death or bodily injury to himself or another person.

Two other conditions, when occurring together, also justify the use of deadly force. First, the police officer needs to use deadly force to prevent resistance or escape. Second, the suspect has committed or attempted a felony or is trying to escape with a deadly weapon, or indicates he will harm or kill another person.

Police Use of Excessive Force Violates Your Constitutional Rights

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. If a police officer uses excessive force against you, it is a clear violation of your constitutional rights, with no regard to whether you committed a crime. Once you’ve been arrested, but before you’ve had your day in court, you are considered a pretrial detainee.

While in custody, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments also protect you from the use of excessive force. Both of these amendments speak to the right of due process; the use of excessive force violates the right of due process. Regardless of whether you’ve been arrested, you’re out on bail, or you’re still in jail, if at any time an officer of the law violated your constitutional rights by using excessive force, you need to contact an experienced civil rights attorney to advocate for you as soon as possible.

Making a Claim Against the Police for the Use of Excessive Force

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows U.S. citizens to sue the government for civil rights violations. When the accused violated a citizen’s constitutional rights while “under color of” local or state law, they may be held accountable. Excessive force claims fall under this umbrella. An officer is “under the color of the law” when he or she is acting as a representative of the state. To be liable for a violation of an inmate’s constitutional rights, an officer must be acting “under the color of the law” when depriving another of their rights. The law is intended to protect citizens against those who abuse the authority granted to them by state law. When police officers use excessive force against a citizen, they satisfy these requirements.

Burden of Proof for Excessive Force Cases

You most likely know that an accused criminal must be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” to be convicted of a crime. The standard of proof is different for civil cases. A plaintiff’s attorney must prove the defendant “more likely than not” committed the action for which he or she has been accused. This standard for liability is called “preponderance of the evidence.” A “preponderance of evidence” is easier to meet than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The latter requires proof, without any doubt that the offender is guilty of the crimes charged against him.

Excessive force cases are filed in the civil court system. However, many states treat them differently in terms of evidentiary proof required to rule in favor of the plaintiff. Depending on the jurisdiction, you will have to overcome the presumption that the force law enforcement officers employed was necessary. Depending on the jurisdiction, you might have to provide “clear and convincing” evidence for the court to rule in your favor. In these jurisdictions, the standard is more difficult to meet than that applicable to personal injury cases.

Sovereign Immunity in Pennsylvania Excessive Force Cases

When a citizen sues the police for excessive force, they are suing a government entity. The doctrine of sovereign immunity prevents citizens from suing the government. However, many local and state governments have waived their right to immunity in certain injury claims. In Pennsylvania, excessive force claims do not fall under the waiver of immunity. This means that a common defense tactic for excessive force cases is to claim sovereign immunity. This, however, has had mixed results for defendants. A recent case involving excessive force was decided by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

The defendant, State Trooper Joseph Lombardo, made a routine traffic stop and pulled over the plaintiff, Shiretta Justice for failing to use her turn signal. The trooper issued tickets for the turn signal and for driving with a suspended license. Justice claimed the trooper wrestled her resulting in a sprained arm, wrist, and back, while she was waiting for a ride home. Lombardo’s story is different. He claims Justice didn’t cooperate with him so he grabbed her arm and pulled her into his patrol car.

The lower court ruled in favor of Lombardo, citing that he acted within the scope of his employment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, overturned the ruling citing that the lower courts misapplied the law. The opinion stated that the trooper’s conduct had personal motives and was unprofessional. The officer acted outside of the scope of his employment; therefore Lombardo cannot claim sovereign immunity. The ruling suggests defendants in excessive force cases will have more difficulty trying to claim sovereign immunity. While on duty, if an officer abuses his power, he may not be able to assert sovereign immunity.

Seeking Compensation for Injuries From Excessive Force

Filing a civil suit against an officer of the law for using excessive force is essentially a request for damages. You may receive compensation for a wide array of damages based on your physical and psychological injuries and the losses you incur as a result. If a court rules in your favor, some damages you might recover include:

  • Medical expenses including ambulance rides, emergency room visits, hospital stays, doctor visits, surgery, medication, x-rays, and follow up care.
  • Future medical expenses when the use of excessive force causes a permanent disability or condition requiring ongoing care.
  • Cost of mental health services for a psychologist or counselor to help you work through the emotional trauma of being victimized by law enforcement.
  • Lost wages for time away from work due to injury, treatment, and recovery.
  • Future lost wages in extreme cases where excessive force led to a catastrophic injury preventing a victim from returning to their job or seeking gainful employment.
  • Physical pain and suffering.
  • Emotional distress.
  • Loss of consortium with spouse in severe cases.
  • Scarring and disfigurement.
  • Any other non-economic costs which might apply to your case.
  • Punitive damages are not uncommon when you can prove the police officer intentionally harmed you.

Get the Legal Help You Need From an Experienced Excessive Force Lawyer

Regardless of whether you are detained or under suspicion for a crime, you have rights when police officers interact with you. Regardless of whether you are guilty or not, law enforcement officers don’t get to abuse their power and cause harm to citizens. Every citizen is guaranteed the same search and seizure and due process rights. When those rights are violated, law enforcement officers must be held accountable.

The judicial system can seem unfair, but you don’t have to accept it when you are the one affected. Instead, you need to contact an experienced and competent excessive force attorney who can advocate for you. An attorney can strive to protect your rights and help you seek the justice you deserve after an officer overstepped his or her professional authority.

At The Zeigler Firm, we understand the challenges harm and injury brings and we aren’t afraid to take on the parties who have caused you harm. If you live in the Greater Philadelphia area and have been a victim of excessive force, contact us today online or at (215) 546-0340 to share your story with us. We will investigate the circumstances of your incident with the police. Our dedicated team will uncover as many facts as possible to build a strong case against the defense. We will handle communication throughout the lawsuit process while you focus on healing and recovery and coping with the aftermath of police brutality.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esq.