Arrested With No Probable Cause? It’s a Civil Rights Violation!

by Ladyblogger on February 5, 2013

Arrests cause a host of negative consequences for the party being arrested, ranging from a permanent arrest record to jail and its attendant hazards. Society has an interest in locking criminals away from society, and police officers are tasked with enforcing the laws. To prevent overzealous police officers and the emergence of a police state, American police officers are subject to the restraints outlined in the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment provides protections “against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and case law throughout the centuries has helped define what constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure.

Identifying a Civil Rights Violation: Consensual Encounters v. Investigative Detentions v. Arrests

Many people do not understand the difference between a consensual encounter, an investigative detention, and an arrest. It is common for one person to believe that he or she has been arrested when he or she has been detained, and some people who are actually arrested believe that they are being detained. The line between these three types of law enforcement encounters can be subtle, but it is critical to determining whether a civil rights violation has occurred.

A consensual encounter occurs where a reasonable person believes that he or she would be free to leave at any point. Officers may initiate a consensual encounter at any time for any reason; citizens may freely choose to ignore or rebuff the officer’s attempts to initiate a conversation and leave the area. In the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause, the officer has no authority to detain the citizen. Officers need not notify the citizen of their exact standard of suspicion at the time of the encounter, and many officers will approach subjects with a polite and friendly demeanor befitting a consensual encounter when the officer actually has reasonable suspicion or probable cause to make an arrest.

In some situations, officers may seize a subject while they conduct an investigation. Investigative detentions have restrictions, as outlined in cases like Terry v. Ohio and countless other cases. Officers may only detain the subject for a reasonable time that is limited to effect the investigation; further detention violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Officers who have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous may conduct a cursory frisk for weapons. If the officer feels an item that he can reasonably articulate feels like contraband, he or she may remove that item from the subject’s clothing. A Terry stop does not warrant a comprehensive search.

In order to conduct an investigative detention, law enforcement officers must have reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion consists of specific facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe that a crime is about to be committed, is being committed, or has been committed. Reasonable suspicion is a much lower standard than probable cause, but it must be based upon specific facts that the officer can articulate.

An arrest occurs where a person is taken into police custody and detained for an indefinite period of time. The length of time is critical to determining whether an arrest has taken place, and the period of time required in a specific situation for a detention to transform into an arrest is a matter frequently disputed in court. In order to arrest a subject, the officer must have probable cause. An officer has probable cause when the facts and circumstances within the officers’ personal knowledge and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested. Probable cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion.

A civil rights violation occurs when the officer oversteps his limits under the Constitution. For example, an officer has no authority to seize someone during a consensual encounter. If he or she exerts physical force or creates some show of authority that would cause a reasonable person to believe that he or she is not free to leave during a consensual encounter in which the officer has no elevated level of suspicion, then the officer has violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Alternatively, an officer who witnesses suspicious behavior may not arrest a subject based on the suspicious behavior alone.

Recourse for a False Arrest

One of the most common avenues of recourse for false arrest lies with the exclusionary rule. Evidence that is uncovered as a result of an illegal search, or that is “fruit of the poisonous tree,” is excluded from evidence at trial. There are exceptions to the exclusionary rule, but in the case of an individual who is unjustly detained and searched, any contraband found will normally be inadmissible. Of course, many victims of false arrests are not criminals, and there will be nothing to exclude. In these cases, it will be necessary to escalate the situation. The best course of action will be to contact false arrest lawyers who are specifically skilled in this defense.

Filing a complaint is one of the most common ways to retaliate against an overzealous officer. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least effective. It takes little effort to pick up a phone, speak with the officer’s supervisor, and lodge a complaint against that officer. From a law enforcement perspective, citizens routinely make unfounded accusations against officers. Filing a complaint against a rogue officer is worthwhile, but if complaints against the officer do not amount to a small mountain of paperwork, it is unlikely that anything will come of the complaint.

A more effective course of action is to pursue a civil lawsuit. Officers have qualified immunity for their actions taken during the course and scope of their employment. Recovering from individual officers can be very difficult, although it is not impossible. Filing suit against the department and the city for the false arrest is a much more effective option. Injured plaintiffs will often recover damages and receive compensation for their injuries. The funds will come out of the department’s budget or the city budget, which can cause key decision makers to reevaluate their policies. In many false arrest situations, the calculable damages are relatively low.

In the most flagrant cases, a false arrest may merit a federal investigation into whether a civil rights violation occurred. Depriving a citizen of his or her rights under color of authority is a federal crime, and federal prosecutors can indict officers who engage in such activities. This is a rarely exercised option, and igniting a federal investigation into police misconduct can be very difficult. However, if the damages were severe, if the officer’s conduct was sufficiently outrageous, and if the conduct was documented thoroughly, the police officer may be investigated.

Victims of civil rights violations must retain an attorney as soon as possible. Victims who are intimidated into silence or who believe that the conduct was not that severe do a disservice to society, as the penalties for violating the Constitution are ignored. Restraints upon authority are essential to a free society. Harshly penalizing officers who violate the Constitution and the institutions that hire them encourages better training for officers, a greater respect for citizens’ rights, and a more efficient criminal justice system.

Anthony Joseph writes on various legal subjects, and is a contributing author for false arrest lawyers at the Perecman Law Firm. Police officers can only detain or arrest an individual if they have probable cause to. If there isn’t any probable cause, the arrest or detention will be a violation of the individual’s civil rights. Any harm that’s caused by the arrest, including confinement, excessive force, police brutality and loss of any job opportunities, should be eligible for compensation under the law.

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