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Criminal And Civil Protections For Law Enforcement Officers

Criminal and Civil Protections for Law Enforcement Officers

By: Isaac A. McBeth, Esq.

The NY Times recently reported that civil rights prosecutors recommended charges against a New York police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. The circumstances surrounding Mr. Garner’s death have been widely publicized. Mr. Garner died after NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold to restrain him on a New York City sidewalk. The confrontation between officers and Mr. Garner stemmed from accusations that Mr. Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes.

However, the article by the NY Times also notes hesitation among Justice Department officials to pursue charges given the difficulties involved in winning criminal prosecutions against law enforcement officers (LEOs)—even those who cross the line during the performance of their duties. The entire article can be read here.

As a firm that has experience litigating civil claims against LEOs who violate the constitutional rights of civilians, we have experienced firsthand the difficulties of holding officers accountable for even gross misconduct and dereliction of duties, due to the added layers of protection available to them under the law. These legal protections, in large part, do not exist for any other segment of the population.

The primary argument for allowing LEOs greater legal protections is that their profession requires them to make split-second decisions in heated situations which may very well have life or death consequences. Indeed, one does not need to strain the imagination to think of many scenarios where LEOs might be faced to make such a decision for legitimate fear of his/her personal safety. However, critics counter that these protections have been used to afford LEOs protection from criminal and civil liability in situations bordering on the nonsensical—effectively perpetuating cultures of abuse and misconduct due to lack of accountability. These situations frequently involve officers using deadly force against suspects who are unarmed and are not engaged in violent criminal activity—yet nonetheless manage to escape any form of accountability whatsoever.

We are curious about your thoughts on this subject. Should law enforcement officers be given special consideration not given to any other member of the public before the law imposes criminal or civil liability on them?