Toledo, Ohio car accident attorney Dale Emch answers readers’ questions in his most recent “Legal Briefs” column found in the Toledo Blade. If you have a general legal question you would like addressed, contact our office. Mr. Emch will consider all questions for publication in his column, including those inquiring about car accidents, workers’ compensation, and dog bite injuries.
Dear Dale: Earlier this year, I was charged with assaulting a man following a traffic confrontation. I never struck the man and the case eventually was dismissed. This man told the police I hit him and based on what he said, I was arrested. I’m so angry that I was held in jail, even for a short time, and that I had to defend myself on this charge that I want to sue the small police department that arrested me. It just wasn’t right, what they put me through, and I’ve found that I no longer trust the police.
Bringing a claim for wrongful arrest against a police department is possible, but you’re looking at an uphill battle. Both state law and common law made by judges set a very high standard for suing the police or any public official for action taken in the performance in their duties.
The idea is that police need to make judgment calls all the time, so exposing them to lawsuits every time they get it wrong – or someone alleges they got it wrong – would discourage people from being public officials and would cost communities a lot of money to defend them.
People making these allegations can go down a few paths even in the same lawsuit. One route is to allege that the police committed a violation of federal law by violating the person’s rights under the U.S. Constitution. Even if the person bringing the suit can show his rights were violated, a concept called qualified immunity protects an officer if the officer misunderstood the law in the particular circumstances or a reasonable officer would understand that his actions violated the person’s rights. That is one tough burden of proof to overcome, but it’s not impossible because these cases are successfully brought from time to time.
The other route a person advancing such a claim can explore is a state-law civil action for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment. In Ohio, the law presumes that officers are immune from state civil suits. An officer – and the city or governmental entity for which he or she works – can be stripped of immunity in limited circumstances.
A person making such a claim under state law must show that the officer acted with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner. Without getting bogged down in the specific legal definitions of all those terms, it’s safe to say the officer pretty much had to intentionally desire to wrongfully arrest someone or acted so recklessly that the conduct could be viewed an intentional deviation of duty. So, again, that’s a high standard to meet.
It’s not enough for an officer to simply make a mistake. Just getting it wrong doesn’t mean the officer should lose his immunity and be forced to defend a lawsuit.
All of these cases are fact-specific. Applying the situation to the facts you described, my gut feeling is that your case would get bounced out of court by a judge before it could even be presented to a jury. It sounds like the person who claims you hit him convinced the police that the incident likely occurred. The police apparently found him credible enough that they believed they had probable cause to arrest you. Having probable cause doesn’t mean that there was enough evidence to convict you – it just means that based on the totality of the circumstances, the police believed they had trustworthy information that you committed the assault.
So, unless you can prove – not through your suspicions or conjecture – that the police knew you were innocent but decided to arrest you just for kicks, or that their decisions amounted to recklessness so severe that it could be construed as intentional conduct, you probably couldn’t prevail. I don’t want to be redundant, but just making the wrong decision or believing the wrong person isn’t enough for an officer to lose the shield of immunity.
Dismissal of the criminal charges may be the only satisfaction you’re going to get out of this situation, which probably seems like a hollow victory.