Generally, a police officer is allowed to use whatever force is reasonable and necessary to effect an arrest, or to protect himself and others. It is illegal for an officer to use “excessive force; when making an arrest or conducting an investigation. Excessive force is simply more force than is reasonably necessary to accomplish his/her lawful objective.

In order to have a successful claim of excessive force, the plaintiff must allege that the police conduct at issue was unreasonable under the circumstances. Courts look to whether the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances he faced. The determination of reasonableness requires a balancing of two separate interests: the nature and quality of the force used by the police and the government’s interest in effecting the arrest. Excessive force claims are often brought in Federal Court under Title 42 U.S.C. 1983, of the Federal Code, as civil claims for damages in which violations of a plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights are alleged.

Certain factors—such as an arrestee’s attempt to flee or resistance to the arrest, as well as the severity of the underlying crime and the threat to safety created by the defendant—may make the use of what otherwise would have been deemed excessive force reasonable. For instance, if an arrestee struggles with police as they attempt to arrest him, it may be reasonable for the arresting officers to use more force than they would if he was passive. On the other hand, if an arrestee is passive, but an officer punches him or otherwise abuses him, that level of force, under those circumstances, may be considered unreasonable.

It is important for someone who thinks they may be a victim of excessive police force to document (and photograph) any injuries they may have sustained as a result of the use of excessive force by the police. Similarly, gathering contact information of anyone who may have witnessed the incident will also be helpful in developing evidence that can be used at a trial.

Qualified Immunity

An affirmative defense of qualified immunity is available to defendants who acted under circumstances where a reasonable official may not have understood that the conduct alleged (forced used) was illegal. It is not necessary to show that the defendant officer was acting in bad faith and, indeed, the officer’s subjective intentions, such as a good faith belief that what he was doing was lawful, are irrelevant. To defeat qualified immunity, it is necessary for the plaintiff to show that, given the facts and circumstances alleged, any reasonable officer would have known that the conduct complained of violated well established law at the time of the incident.


A victim of excessive force may recover compensatory damages, injunctive relief, and (except in the case of municipal defendants) punitive damages. The prevailing plaintiff can also recover the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys' fees.