By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
I’ll do my best to stay in my lane. I defend people charged with crime and I don’t sue police but I get this question a lot so I’ll do my best to answer.
I often refer cases where folks are interested in taking legal action out to lawyers who focus more in that area. But if I don’t think you’ve got much of a case — I can still probably diagnose it and let you know if it’s good time and energy spent on a bad task.
What I can also say is this – if you’re charged with a crime the first priority is always to defeat those charges. I liken it to playing defense before playing offense. Pleading guilty or losing a case where you’re trying to sue the police is a great way to spoil that case.
Immunity From Suit
Police, prosecutors and judges have wide-ranging immunity from civil liability and for good reason. We want them to be able to do their jobs and not constantly worry about getting sued nor put their own personal assets on the line for just doing their job.
There are some limited situations where they are individually liable. The main one is under 42 U.S.C. 1983.
This federal statute says the following:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congressapplicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.
In English – if a government worker as part of their job intentionally deprives someone of a constitutional right or liberty then they can be sued in federal court. There are law review articles on this statute and it’s the subject of entire law school classes – so I don’t pretend for a moment this blog covers it all.
In short – 1983 claims are typically brought for police brutality and prison litigation but it isn’t exclusively reserved for that. The standard is pretty difficult because negligence generally isn’t enough to trigger liability.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.