There is a line between enforcing the law and abusing its authority. When law enforcement officers cross that line by using excessive force, they cause physical and psychological injury, and often create an even greater disruption of the peace they were sworn to protect. Sometimes their actions have fatal consequences. To serve and protect is noble, but a bully with a badge can’t be tolerated. If you are a victim of police brutality in Colorado, you can fight back with formidable legal action.
In this Guide:
- What Can I Recover if I’m a Victim of Police Brutality?
- What Kind of Evidence Do I Need to File a Claim?
- Understanding Police Misconduct and Brutality
- The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act
- Your Constitutional Rights vs. Police Brutality
Police are given considerable discretion in the amount of force they can use when making an arrest or responding to a dangerous situation. That is why, until recently, law enforcement usually got the benefit of the doubt against allegations of using excessive force to subdue and arrest a suspect.
The widespread videotaped beating and arrest of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, in 1991, reignited the movement against unreasonable police use of force. The ubiquity of video-enabled smartphones documented the grim procession of tragedies resulting from unchecked law enforcement aggression — particularly against unarmed African Americans.
Today, smartphones and police body cameras are commonly used to hold bad police officers accountable.
Let’s take a closer look at how Colorado law defines police misconduct and how our attorneys can help you if you’ve been a victim of it.
What Can I Recover if I’m a Victim of Police Brutality?
Colorado’s courts recognize that law enforcement personnel have a difficult and dangerous job. Therefore, police officers still can use force — even deadly force — if it’s necessary to protect themselves and others.
If you and your attorney can prove that an arresting officer used excessive force or violence against you that resulted in injury, you could be compensated for the following damages:
- physical and emotional suffering
- medical expenses
- damage to your property
- lost income
How Much Can I Recover in a Settlement?
How much you can receive depends on a number of factors, like the specifics of your case. However, the Colorado Government Immunity Act caps state claims at $424,000 per individual, or $1,195,000 for any injury to two or more persons. Nevertheless, Colorado has been paying attention to the police brutality issue — and paying up.
The Office of the Denver City Attorney released statistics showing that the City of Denver paid out more than $3 million dollars to victims of police brutality and misconduct in 2022 alone. That figure does not count the $14 million awarded to 12 Black Lives Matter protesters in March of 2022, after a 2020 incident.
What Kind of Evidence Do I Need to File a Claim?
The burden of proof is yours if you bring a lawsuit against an individual law enforcement officer or police department. It will be paramount that you can show, “more likely than not,” that the amount of force used against you was unreasonable and excessive.
The best evidence for your case can include:
- body camera footage of the officer(s) making the arrest
- nearby closed circuit television (CCTV) camera footage
- eyewitness statements or individual smartphone camera footage
- expert witness testimony
- medical records documenting your injuries
Understanding Police Misconduct and Brutality
What is Police Misconduct?
There are three primary kinds of claims under the legal umbrella of police misconduct, as it is defined under Title 42, Section 1983 of the U.S. Code. They include:
- Use of Excessive Force/Police Brutality — when police and other law enforcement agents respond to a situation using more physical force than necessary to gain control
- False or Unlawful Arrest — when a police officer arrests someone without probable cause that the person is committing or has committed a crime
- False Imprisonment — when police or other law enforcement agents use unauthorized bodily restraint, even when not placing a person in jail
Police misconduct comes in many forms. Here are some examples of general police misconduct:
- discriminatory behavior and racial profiling
- illegal search and seizure
- denying medical assistance
- denying your right to a lawyer
- planting or tampering with evidence
- coercing a confession
- threats of violence
- intimidation, stalking, and/or harassment
What is Police Brutality?
Police brutality is the excessive or unnecessary use of physical force and violence by law enforcement to either gain control of a situation or to make an arrest. It can cause physical, emotional, or fatal injuries.
According to the organization Mapping Police Violence, 1,155 people were killed by law enforcement officers in 2021, which is a slight increase compared to 2020, which included national protest events over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
What Causes Excessive Use of Force?
Inadequate training, insufficient candidate screening, systemic racism, a culture of general unprofessionalism, and other factors can lead to or exacerbate incidents of excessive force. Some examples of police brutality include:
- unjustified deadly force
- excessive force
- unwarranted use of firearms, tasers, or chemical sprays
- unsanctioned chokeholds and carotid holds
- sexual assault or abuse
- in-custody abuse, such as cruel jail conditions or unnecessarily rough treatment
- mis-use of a K9 unit
Colorado Ranks Embarrassingly High
Mapping Police Violence ranked Colorado sixth-highest in the number of killings by police, at 7.27 per-million residents in 2021. The unjustified police slayings of Elijah McClain in 2019 and Christian Glass in the summer of 2022 demonstrate the amount of work that needs to be done in the Centennial State.
The good news is that Colorado lawmakers are taking action.
The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act
Also known as Colorado Senate Bill 20-217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act does away with the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shielded police officers and departments from civil liability for deaths and injuries resulting from excessive force.
Qualified immunity protected police officers from being sued for constitutional violations committed in the line of duty, unless they violate clearly established law. Ideally, qualified immunity allowed police officers to perform their jobs free from the encumbrance of potential lawsuits and court costs.
Over the years, however, courts continuously widened their interpretation of qualified immunity until officers could engage in egregiously unconstitutional acts with impunity.
No More Qualified Immunity
The most important provision of the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act was the removal of qualified immunity, meaning police officers who cause unnecessary injury through unreasonable force in their duties can face prosecution and civil lawsuits like anyone else.
“ … A peace officer who uses excessive force in pursuance of such officer’s law enforcement duties shall be subject to the criminal laws of this state to the same degree as any other citizen … “ — Colorado Revised Statutes 18-8-803
Police officers in Colorado can now be individually sued for misconduct, and they face damages of up to $25,000 or 5 percent of the total judgment, whichever is less. However, a court must find that the officer was not acting in good faith when the misconduct occurred.
Officers Must Report Excessive Force Incidents
Colorado Revised Statute 18-8-802 says that a police officer who witnesses an act of excessive force must report it to their immediate supervisor. This act of excessive force could occur while making an arrest, during the booking process, when taking a person into custody, or during a crowd control event.
The same statute also requires that any officer witnessing excessive force has a legal duty to intervene and stop the incident. This is the requirement of federal civil rights law under the United States Constitution as well.
Under Colorado law, a police officer who fails to report an excessive force incident can face criminal charges.
Other Public Safety Measures:
- All police officers and sheriff’s deputies must wear body cameras when they make stops and during most interactions with the public. Body camera recordings must be released to the public after incidents, in most circumstances, within 14 days.
- By July 2023, all police departments will be required to report to a state agency all use of force that results in bodily injury or death. That information includes the demographics of the person who was injured or killed by police, the type of force used, and the name of the officer involved.
- Officers cannot use deadly force to arrest someone on suspicion of minor or non-violent offenses.
- Officers cannot use deadly force unless there is proof of imminent threat of danger and there is a substantial risk that the suspect will hurt others.
- Police must have a legal basis for establishing contact with someone, including stopping them on the street or pulling over vehicles.
- Officers cannot use chemical agents, namely tear gas, without warning in response to a protest or demonstration. They cannot fire rubber or foam bullets indiscriminately into a crowd.
- Officers cannot use carotid chokeholds under any circumstances.
- The state attorney general shall have the power to investigate police departments for civil rights violations.
The swift passage of the bill came in response to the May 24, 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer. Colorado governor Jared Polis signed the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act into law less than a month later.
How Much Force is Too Much?
Colorado law established guidelines that law enforcement — and the courts, if necessary — must observe in determining whether a peace officer has used excessive force. Factors to be considered include:
- the severity of the crime the injured person was suspected of,
- if the officer knew whether the injured person was armed with a deadly weapon,
- if the injured suspect posed an immediate threat to the officer or other people nearby,
- whether the injured suspect resisted arrest or tried to get away,
- the extent of the injuries caused by the officer’s force, and
- whether such force could be deemed reasonable under the circumstances.
— C.R.S. 18-1-707
Your Constitutional Rights vs. Police Brutality
Any incident of police brutality in Colorado violates not only state law, but one’s constitutional rights. Long before qualified immunity arrived, via the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court Case Harlow v. Fitzgerald, Americans were already guaranteed certain protections from the police by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution provides that no individual should be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures of property or their person. The amendment also protects citizens from arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention by police.
The Fifth Amendment
The Fifth Amendment has many provisions, including the bedrock protection from self-incrimination. If arrested, a suspect must be read their Miranda rights and may remain silent if they so choose.
If police officers coerce a suspect to a confession, fail to read them their Miranda rights, or continue the interview after they’ve requested an attorney, they could be held accountable for violating the suspect’s constitutional rights. Any conviction or confession resulting from the violation could be overturned.
The Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment clearly states that no individual should suffer from cruel and unusual punishment, which can be interpreted by a court as the excessive and unreasonable force demonstrated in police brutality cases.
The Fourteenth Amendment
This amendment guarantees citizens the right to due process, asserting that no individual should be deprived of their liberty, property, or life without due legal process. This includes protection from false imprisonment and unlawful seizure.
Have Your Civil Rights Been Violated by Excessive Police Behavior?
Bringing a lawsuit against any government agency is complicated and challenging, particularly if you’re suing a law enforcement agency. It is important to enlist the help of a sympathetic civil rights attorney with experience in obtaining key evidence and witness testimony. Don’t let a badge trump your rights. Call 303-688-0944 for your case assessment.