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Police Officers and Personal Civil Liability

Police Officers and Personal Civil Liability

This is a tense time for police officers. Due to controversial issues like police shootings and racial tensions, officers are facing a great deal of scrutiny into both their professional and private lives. Civil lawsuits directed at police officers are on the rise. It is especially important that officers be aware of the ways they could potentially be held personally liable for actions taken while on duty.

Personal liability in this context means that a police officer can face a civil suit for actions taken in relation to their position as a law enforcement officer. For example, a person who claims they were intentionally injured by a police officer could bring a tort lawsuit against the officer. The most common type of lawsuit brought against police officers involves a violation of constitutional or statutory rights; this is known as a Bivens action. Common examples of this type of suit include:

  • An allegation of false arrest
  • An allegation of excessive force
  • An allegation of malicious prosecution
  • An allegation that a law enforcement officer failed to intervene in the unlawful actions of a fellow officer

When these kinds of allegations arise, the police department is usually sued for the law enforcement officer’s actions; however, the individual officer is targeted as well. Since a personal civil lawsuit could result in the officer paying significant out of pocket damages, these situations are understandably extremely stressful.

The good news is that courts will generally defer to law enforcement officers and dismiss the suit. This is because most courts give officers a large amount of discretion in how they perform their duties. Additionally, the government will usually take on the defense of the officer once the lawsuit is filed. Even so, police officers should give serious consideration to maintaining a private insurance policy to cover legal defense and pay a judgement or settlement.