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Does the Fourth Amendment protect you from excessive force?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the use of excessive force in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure. Excessive force by a law enforcement officer is force that is objectively unreasonable under the circumstances. Officers generally are trained that force that is unnecessary under the circumstances also is unreasonable, and California has codified that now for deadly force. Thus, excessive force = unreasonable force = unnecessary force — those terms can be interchangeable, and they are all unlawful force under the Fourth Amendment.

Whether an officer’s particular use of force is considered unreasonable — excessive — under the law is determined by balancing the type and amount of force used against the legitimate governmental need for that force.

All people in the United States, whether or not they are citizens, have the right to be free from the use of excessive force by police and other law enforcement officers. The United States Supreme Court explained how the Fourth Amendment protects us all from the use of excessive force in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).

What is the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment provides: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Fourth Amendment originally enforced the notion that “each man’s home is his castle,” secure from unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government. It protects against arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force, and is the basis of the law regarding search warrants, stop-and-frisk, safety inspections, wiretaps, and other forms of surveillance, as well as being central to many other criminal law topics and to privacy law. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable seizures includes a seizure, or arrest or detention, of one’s person. The Fourth Amendment is one of the most important amendments in the Bill of Rights protecting people in the United States from government abuse of power.

How is the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive force enforced?

Our most cherished rights under Constitution are enforced almost entirely by private individuals, with the help of civil rights attorneys in civil court, or criminal defense attorneys defending them in a criminal prosecution. The federal government has almost no enforcement mechanism to protect individual constitutional rights. Instead, our system relies on private enforcement of the Fourth Amendment and other important rights.

Sometimes, when the government is prosecuting a person for a crime, the person’s criminal defense attorney can challenge a search or other government conduct as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. More commonly, the Fourth Amendment is enforced by private individuals bringing civil lawsuits as “plaintiffs” against the officer or government who violated their rights. Such lawsuits are called “civil rights lawsuits,” and are done with the help of private “civil rights attorneys.” This system grants every individual with a meritorious case the power to act as a private attorney general to vindicate important civil rights. As the Supreme Court explained in Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826 (2011), “When a plaintiff succeeds in remedying a civil rights violation, we have stated, he serves as a ‘private attorney general,’ vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority.”

What remedies are available for a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

In a civil rights case, generally, our system provides for money damages to compensate the victim for his or her injuries and losses. Sometimes, reforms are also possible. And, civil rights attorneys’ fees — making the officers or government side pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees — are available to civil rights plaintiffs who win their case in court. However, criminal penalties like sending the officers or involved government officials to jail are not available in a civil rights lawsuit. Only a District Attorney or government prosecutor can seek criminal penalties.

The civil rights attorneys at Haddad & Sherwin LLP are leaders in the field, having successfully represented hundreds of people fighting for justice in serious injury and wrongful death cases, while obtaining important reforms to prevent future abuses. If you or someone close to you has suffered a serious loss due to a civil rights violation, call Haddad & Sherwin LLP for a free consultation.

Haddad & Sherwin LLP has a long, successful track record winning wrongful death and other serious civil rights claims for police and jail officer misconduct, throughout Northern and Central California.  Call or email us for a free consultation.