Hundreds Killed or Injured in Police Custody Each Year
In the past month, a California man died after police hit him with batons when he ran away and resisted arrest for speeding, a Missouri woman died after blood clots formed in her legs when she was arrested for refusing to leave a hospital emergency room, and a naked Florida man acting strangely – apparently after taking LSD – died not long after he was Tasered and restrained by police.
They’re just a few of more than 600 people who die in police custody each year, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures, and countless others are injured while under arrest. Unlike deaths and injuries at work or commercial establishments, these tragedies come with unusual challenges that victims and their families should take the time to understand, according to a recent analysis by attorney Jim Lewis of Virginia law firm Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton.
“When a personal injury occurs outside the context of criminal law and procedure, we take it for granted that the injured victim can seek recovery in a relatively straight-forward fashion,” Lewis wrote for InjuryBoard.com. “But once police officers get involved, the rules start to operate a little bit differently, sometimes even if the detained individual didn’t even engage in criminal conduct. Even though personal injury suits against police officers or prisons can be quite a bit thornier than a normal personal injury claim, these victims still have rights and an interest in recovery if there was negligent conduct.”
For one thing, mistreatment while in custody may be grounds for a civil rights complaint. Although police can use force where deemed “reasonable,” over-use of batons, Tasers or other physical means to control another person may be deemed excessive. For example, a Los Angeles bus driver who was pulled over for speeding recently won a $6 million civil rights complaint, after he sued over the injuries he received while in custody – which came close to costing him the vision in one eye. Racial profiling was also a factor in that case.
If you believe you’ve been the victim of excessive police force, a civil rights attorney can help you determine whether you have a case.
Even without a civil rights claim, however, people injured while in police custody “might be able to bring a normal personal injury claim on the basis of negligence,” Lewis said.
But the odds of succeeding in such a case will depend on the details of your case and on where the incident took place. In some jurisdictions, police have extra immunity that makes it hard to sue. “Behaviors that would be unacceptable from a normal citizen suddenly may be ‘reasonable’ if carried out by a police officer while trying to uphold public safety,” according to Lewis.
That said, if you were hurt while under arrest – or if a family member died while in custody – you still have rights. “An arrest or detention does not strip an individual of all protections,” according to Lewis.
What do you think? Should police be immune from civil lawsuits if a suspect in injured or killed while under arrest? Share your opinion by leaving a comment below.