Allegations of police misconduct have dominated the headlines over the past few years. This is especially true in New York City, where the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” practices often disproportionately targeted people of color. If you have been injured, falsely arrested, suffered property damage, or have been subject to discrimination by government officials—including police officers—it is important to take action to preserve your civil rights. Learn more about your civil rights under New York State law and how a civil rights attorney can help you protect yourself from legal, physical, and financial harm.
Your Civil Rights Under New York Law
The U.S. and New York constitutions provide individuals with protection against unlawful searches and seizures and the taking of property without due process protections. New York residents, including non-citizens, also have the right to freedom from discrimination in just about every aspect of society, including housing, employment, and education. Businesses, government organizations, and individuals who violate these civil rights can be held liable under state and federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.
What Constitutes Illegal Discrimination?
Discrimination is defined as the unlawful treatment of a person or group of people based on immutable characteristics like:
- National Origin
- Marital Status
- Sexual Orientation
Though business owners and even the government can discriminate against individuals in certain circumstances, discriminating solely on the basis of one of the above categories is illegal. For example, a government agency or private employer may lawfully refuse to hire someone based on their criminal history, or an apartment landlord may require an additional monthly pet deposit before renting to a person who owns a dog. However, if this employer refuses to hire a qualified applicant because they’re a woman of childbearing age, or the landlord refuses to rent an apartment to a disabled person, this discrimination is illegal.
How Does Police Misconduct Fit into Civil Rights Law?
One subset of civil rights law includes allegations of police misconduct. Things like racial profiling or stop-and-frisk laws can disproportionately impact individuals in protected categories, and if an arrest, detention, or civil forfeiture is made on the basis of one of these protected categories, the individual officer or even the entire police department may be held liable.
Most police misconduct claims fall into one of the following categories:
- False Arrest
- Retaliatory Arrest
- Rough or Unnecessary Frisking
- Racial Profiling
- Police Assault and Battery
- Malicious Prosecution
- Illegal Traffic Stops
- Police Shootings
- Wrongful Death While in Police Custody
- Denial of Medical Treatment
- Sexual Abuse of Prison Inmates
Some of these claims, such as racial profiling, require that the officer targeted an individual on the basis of one or more protected characteristics. However, a civil rights attorney can bring claims like false arrest, assault and battery and wrongful death, on behalf of anyone who has suffered harm at the hands of police.
Prevailing in a Civil Rights Claim
To prevail in a civil rights claim against a city or state police department, a plaintiff must initiate a claim under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. These “Section 1983” claims require the plaintiff to prove three elements:
- A police officer engaged in conduct that violated your rights under the U.S. Constitution, the New York Constitution, or a state or federal statute.
- This misconduct occurred while the officer was on duty and acting as a representative of the department.
- This misconduct deprived you or others of a constitutional right or a right under federal statute.
As with just about all types of legal claims, there are several caveats and exceptions to these elements.
As to the first element, you can file your claim against both the individual officer and the municipality that employed them at the time of the misconduct if you can show that other officers were aware of the misconduct but failed to report it or step in to stop it. You can also sue a city if your complaint alleges a pattern or practice of misconduct against both you and a larger group of people.
As to the second element, if the officer is clearly and visibly off duty at the time of the misconduct, it can be more difficult to prevail in a Section 1983 claim. In some cases, the officer may be held liable even if off duty if they continue to assert their police authority, wear their uniform, or display their badge in a way that implies that they are acting as an officer, not as a private citizen.
For example, if an off-duty officer who is still in uniform attempts to stop and frisk a suspicious-looking teenager outside a gas station, the teenager is likely to assume that the officer is acting as a member of the police force. Someone who might normally fight back (or walk away) from a private citizen who attempts to touch them is far less likely to disengage if they believe this person is a police officer. Under these circumstances, even if the officer was not acting at the direction of the police force during this interaction, he or she may be held liable because the average layperson would have no idea they were off duty at the time.
If the police officer was not on duty, nor seemingly on duty when your civil rights were violated, this does not mean that the officer cannot be held liable; it simply limits the type of lawsuit you can commence to general negligence, as you would be able to file if you were assaulted or battered by a private citizen.
What Constitutes Excessive Force?
One of the most common claims a civil rights attorney may bring against a police department involves officers’ use of excessive force against suspects—or, as recently seen, the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.
Excessive force is defined as any force that is disproportional to the circumstances of the arrest. This standard allows an officer to use some force if the situation calls for it (such as resisting arrest), or even deadly force if the officer believes their life to be in danger; however, the officer is not permitted to use force to escalate the situation. This is a highly fact-sensitive inquiry that can require a civil rights attorney to look into factors like the officer’s history of prior similar complaints, the victim’s actions leading up to the interaction, and any testimony from witnesses.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that, as of 2008, nearly three in every four people who were arrested by police believe that they were subjected to excessive force during the process. Men are more likely than women, and African-Americans are more likely than other minorities, to be victims of excessive force by police. Excessive force is a violation of your Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unlawful and unreasonable searches and seizures and can be the basis of a Section 1983 claim.
The decision of whether the police officer’s use of force was reasonable will be presented to the judge or a jury. If the factfinder determines that the victim was subjected to excessive force during an arrest, it may award damages to compensate the victim for any medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, or any other costs stemming from the officer’s misconduct. In some situations, the court may also order that the police department institute new training protocols or tighten their pre-employment screening processes to prevent future incidents.
Consult a New York Civil Rights Attorney to Preserve Your Rights
If you have been the victim of unlawful discrimination, police brutality, or other police misconduct, it is important to seek legal advice to inform your next steps. Fighting for your rights can not only help you secure compensation for the injuries you’ve suffered, but it can also ensure the discipline or removal of police officers who have made a practice of violating others’ civil rights.
At Halperin & Halperin, P.C., our experienced attorneys have litigated hundreds of cases involving police misconduct and other civil rights violations. Explore our website to learn more about the cases we’re involved in and the outcomes we’ve achieved for our clients. Our results speak for themselves.