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About Federal Law Enforcement Misconduct Statutes

Law Enforcement Misconduct in the United States has a history as long as law enforcement itself. To prevent this sort of government abuse of people, the Constitution and other federal and state laws protect all people within the United States.

The United States Constitutional prohibits various forms of law enforcement misconduct, including unlawful searches, seizures, and arrests, excessive force by law enforcement officers, jail misconduct, deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs or safety of inmates, and other arbitrary misconduct. The constitutional rights that protect us from such misconduct, especially in the Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment, are enforced through federal civil and criminal statutes, as well as under various state laws. This article focuses on federal law.

The federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Our most cherished rights under Constitution are enforced almost entirely by private individuals, with the help of their civil rights attorneys. The federal government does very little to enforce individual constitutional rights. Instead, our system relies on private enforcement of Constitutional rights.

42 U.S.C. § 1983, also known as The Civil Rights Act of 1871, provides for private enforcement of constitutional rights through a civil lawsuit. Section 1983 provides:

“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 Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”

Our constitutional rights, including protections from police and other law enforcement misconduct, are 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.”

Remedies available in a private civil rights lawsuit

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.  The law firm of Haddad & Sherwin LLP is based in Oakland, California, and handles cases throughout Northern and Central California, the Bay Area, and the Central Valley.

Federal criminal prosecution of law enforcement Misconduct

Federal criminal prosecutions of officers involved in police misconduct can only be brought by federal prosecutors from the United States Department of Justice. Here’s some of the information about federal criminal prosecution of civil rights violations that’s posted in the U.S Department of Justice’s website. The federal criminal statute that enforces Constitutional limits on conduct by law enforcement officers is 18 U.S.C. § 242. Section 242 provides in relevant part:

“Whoever, under color of any law, …willfully subjects any person…to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States [shall be guilty of a crime].”

Section 242 is intended to “protect all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and furnish the means of their vindication.” Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, 98 (1945) (quoting legislative history).

Police misconduct and criminal violation of section 242

To prove a violation of § 242, the government must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) that the defendant deprived a victim of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, (2) that the defendant acted willfully, and (3) that the defendant was acting under color of law.

A violation of § 242 is a felony if one of the following conditions is met:

  • The defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use a dangerous weapon, explosive or fire
  • The victim suffered bodily injury
  • The defendant’s actions included attempted murder
  • Kidnapping or attempted kidnapping
  • Aggravated sexual abuse or attempted aggravated sexual abuse
  • The crime resulted in death

Otherwise, the violation is a misdemeanor.

Providing proof of Police misconduct in a criminal prosecution

Establishing the intent behind a Constitutional criminal violation requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the law enforcement officer knew what he/she was doing was wrong and against the law and decided to do it anyway.

Therefore, even if the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual’s Constitutional right was violated, § 242 requires that the government prove that the law enforcement officer intended to engage in the unlawful conduct and that he/she did so knowing that it was wrong or unlawful. See Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, 101-107 (1945).

Mistake, fear, misperception, or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct prosecutable under the statute.

Civil redress for constitutional violations is available under other federal and state laws, and generally involves lower thresholds for proving a violation than for a criminal prosecution.

Criminal prosecutions for law enforcement misconduct, while becoming more common than they used to be, are still extremely rare. As a practical matter, the people who enforce constitutional rights are the civil rights plaintiffs who bring lawsuits in either federal or state court for violation of their civil rights.

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.