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Departments : Point of Law

Controlling Lawsuit Risks

The best way to avoid being sued for the execution of your duties is to know the law.

February 01, 2005  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Some law enforcement activities are more likely than others to generate citizen complaints, tort claims, and lawsuits (use of deadly or serious force, for example). But even routine detentions, searches, and arrests also present civil liability risks. What can you do to reduce the chances of becoming a defendant in a lawsuit?

Staying Current

Officers receive comprehensive indoctrination on the basics of arrest, search, and seizure during academies and in-service training, but there is a career-long need to continue to update that information. And the reason for this need is easy to understand: the law is constantly changing.

New legislation and new case decisions come out continually and either reverse or modify existing law. An officer who has no ongoing plan for keeping current with these changes is at greater risk for civil liability because he or she is more likely to be basing actions on outdated concepts of law.

Most jurisdictions require their officers to undergo a minimum number of hours of continuing professional training each year. Seminars, conferences, broadcasts, publications (including “Point of Law” columns), Internet study, taped programs, and other training vehicles also provide updates to keep officers current on changes in the law. Whatever your personal or departmental program may include, the best insurance against civil liability will always be knowing and following the latest pronouncements on the constitutional and statutory limits placed on your police powers.

But there’s more you can do.

Heck v. Humphrey

Roy Heck was convicted of manslaughter and given a 15-year sentence. From prison, he tried to file a civil rights suit against law enforcement officials, accusing them of violating his constitutional rights during the investigation and prosecution of the case. When the matter reached the U.S. Supreme Court, a rule was announced that can often be invoked to bar certain lawsuits against police.

The court noted that there is a “strong judicial policy against the creation of two conflicting resolutions arising out of the same or identical transaction.” Also, the only means for attacking the validity of a criminal conviction is by direct appeal or habeas corpus in the criminal courts.

For these reasons, the court ruled that a person who has been convicted of a crime cannot undermine the validity of his conviction by obtaining a contrary result in a civil suit. In other words, if a criminal jury has found someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a civil jury cannot be allowed to find that he was not guilty by a preponderance of evidence.

The court explained that where a conviction has not been reversed on appeal, expunged by executive order, or called into question by issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, no suit can be maintained based on the same events if “a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.”

For example, suppose you arrest someone for resisting or obstructing an officer in the lawful performance of his or her duties, and the person pleads guilty or is convicted at trial of that offense. As long as the conviction has not been overturned, this person cannot sue you for illegal detention, false arrest, excessive force, or false imprisonment. If you had committed any of these acts, you would not have been in the lawful performance of your duties; the guilty plea or conviction establishes that you were obstructed while lawfully performing your duties; therefore, Heck bars the lawsuit.

However, if the plaintiff claimed you used excessive force after completing the arrest, this suit would not be barred because success on this claim is not necessarily inconsistent with the conviction. This is a key point that you need to understand. You can lawfully arrest someone and thereafter subject him to excessive force, so there would be no inconsistency between this claim and a conviction for resisting arrest. Also, if you arrested someone for drugs (for example), his conviction would bar any suit for false arrest but not for excessive force because drug possession does not have the element of lawful performance of official duties.

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