Law Enforcement Liability For Improper Investigations

Sometimes people are arrested and charged with a crime even though they’re innocent.  Innocence might be established because the charges are dropped.  Occasionally innocence isn’t proved until a not guilty decision is achieved through a trial.  But what legal rights do people have after being investigated for crimes they didn’t commit?  Can law enforcement be held civilly liable for investigating the wrong person?

The answer is yes, in limited circumstances.  You need to prove more than that the police were negligent in their investigation and mistakenly focused on the wrong person.  Instead, you have to establish that the police acted “recklessly” or “intentionally” during the investigation to the point that it “shocks the conscience.”  That higher standard of proof ensures that the police aren’t subject to a hindsight analysis every time someone’s charges are dismissed or there’s a trial acquittal.

This is an extremely fact-intensive analysis.  Every police investigation is different, so the application of the “reckless or intentional” standard will vary widely from case to case.  The focus will very much be on what other information was available to the police had they done a further investigation, what information was actually in the hands of the police (for example, did they ignore known evidence that pointed at a different culprit), and how long the police had to investigate (the longer the police have to investigate and deliberate, the harder it is for them to justify going after the wrong person).

In general, these cases are not successful when it’s nothing more than a matter of the police sifting through various pieces of evidence, some of which implicate the suspect, some of which did not, and then deciding to go with the “inculpatory” evidence against the suspect and make an arrest.  In that situation, the competing evidence in favor of and against the suspect’s guilt is properly raised in criminal court, but the fact that the inculpatory evidence is later rejected in court does not automatically mean that the police are civilly liable for a wrongful investigation, assuming that they had some other evidence that the suspect was guilty.  A successful case requires that the police ignore available and overwhelming evidence that they’re investigating the wrong person to the point that they violate the suspect’s due process rights by pushing the investigation.

If liability for a wrongful investigation is established, the officers and their law enforcement agency or municipality can be ordered to pay criminal defense attorney fees and expenses and damages for the civil rights violation.  That can include emotional distress, which is impacted by factors such as whether it was a public criminal investigation covered by the media, whether the innocent person was incarcerated for any length of time, and how long the investigation continued before the person was cleared.


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