Civil rights

There are different options when choosing to make a complaint against a police officer about police misconduct, brutality or the use of excessive force. Individuals can file an internal complaint against a police officer with the police department itself, and/or a file a civil claim.

Internal complaints

Large police departments have a method for filing a civilian complaint against a police officer. At the New York Police Department (NYPD), these complaints are made to the Internal Affairs Bureau, who investigate all allegations of corruption and serious misconduct against members of the NYPD. Civilian agencies known as the Civilian Complaint Review Board, CCRB, also hear complaints against police. On Long Island, in Suffolk County, these investigations are also handled by an Internal Affairs Bureau of the Suffolk County Police Department. In Nassau County, the Nassau Police Department has an Internal Affairs Unit, which investigates all allegations of serious misconduct against its members. Collectively, these specialized units are referred to as “IA” below. Internal Affairs also exists in Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx and Staten Island. These agencies will also investigate a claim of false arrest.

Internal affairs investigations is the only option, besides a criminal conviction, that can result in discipline or termination of a police officer. If there is a determination that no misconduct has occurred, the complaint usually stays in the officer’s personnel file. In addition, complaints put the department on notice of officer’s behavior. The negative aspects to filing civilian complaints with the police department to prompt an I.A. investigation, are that the investigation is completely internal, and complainants are typically given no information about the investigation until it is concluded. Further, there is usually no right to appeal.

If you are a criminal defendant, you must discuss any potential complaints regarding police misconduct with an attorney before taking any action, especially filing an internal complaint. Internal complaints can affect a pending criminal case against the complainant because of the need to discuss certain facts. As a criminal defendant, you have the right to remain silent. This right is given up when you file this type of complaint.

Civil claims.

Civil claims against the police are generally filed under section 1983 of the Reconstruction Civil Rights Act: Civil action for deprivation of rights. Section 1983 provides for a broad range of suits against state and local governments and officials for deprivation of federal rights under color of state law. Specifically, it protects individuals who experience police misconduct, brutality, or the use of excessive force during an arrest, or during the course of other interactions with the police. It also includes where police make a false arrest, and where police may create evidence that creates guilt for an otherwise innocent person.

Section 1983 states that

every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Typically, in civil cases regarding police misconduct, the plaintiff is seeking money damages. Compensation for violations of section 1983 are awarded in both compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are meant to compensate plaintiffs for psychological, or intangible injuries, as well as physical harm, and financial or property loss proximately caused by the wrongful conduct. Compensable losses can include lost or diminished earnings, lost profits, property damage, or loss, medical bills, pain and suffering, and/or mental and emotional distress. Compensatory damages are both general and special. General damages are damages that reflect the proximate and foreseeable result of the wrongful conduct. Special damages reflect specific and measurable monetary losses, such as medical expenses or lost wages.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongful and unlawful conduct of defendants and serve as a deterrent of future wrongful conduct. The Supreme Court has held that section 1983 authorizes punitive damages against state or local officials in their individual capacity. See Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 35-6 (1983). The Court held that the award of punitive damages is proper when the defendant’s conduct involves reckless or callous disregard for the plaintiff's rights, as well as intentional violations of plaintiff’s federally protected rights. Id.at 51. Punitive damages awards have been upheld even where plaintiff has suffered only nominal damages from the deprivation of their federal rights. However, the award cannot be “grossly excessive,” as these awards may violate the defendant’s due process rights.

If you live on Long Island, in either Nassau or Suffolk County, or in New York City, including Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and have been wrongfully accused, or have experienced excessive use of force, or police brutality during an arrest or stop and frisk, you should contact an attorney immediately to properly assert your rights.

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