Can I sue the police for emotional distress?


Police misconduct comes in many forms, often leaving its victims with a plethora of residual damages including emotional distress.  Victims can successfully sue police officers for emotional distress when an officer has caused emotional distress through a negligent act, or intentionally acted in a way that directly caused the emotional injury.  Emotional distress is severe when a reasonable person in the same position as the victim would be unable to manage or tolerate it, and the victim’s reaction is not unusual for that circumstance. Courts consider intensity and duration of a negative encounter when determining severe distress.

If legal action is initiated, a victim must prove that an officer caused emotional distress through conduct that was 1) extreme and outrageous; 2) intentional and reckless; and 3) directly related to actions that resulted in severe emotional distress.  If there is a determination by the court that  the actions taken by an officer were within the scope of his/her duties as a law enforcement officer, he/she may not be held liable for the action that caused a victim emotional distress.

Extreme and outrageous.

Conduct by an officer that strips away dignity in another human being and is considered intolerable by societal measures.  Qualifications of this type of conduct include actions that would cause a reasonable person in a similar situation to suffer extreme emotional distress beyond the limits of annoying, offensive or humiliating behaviors and words from an officer. Courts will address whether an officet knew the plaintiff was susceptible to emotional distress; through identification of isolated incidents versus patterns of conduct by an officer; and if the office was in a position of power, which is often the case under color of law.

Intentional and reckless.

Extreme and outrageous conduct is actionable if the officer either intended to cause, or recklessly disregarded the likelihood that the conduct would cause emotional distress.

Negligence inflicted emotional distress.

Victims might also sue police officers when negligent acts caused emotional distress, rather than those that are intentional or reckless. The extent of emotional harm required for a successful lawsuit depends on the jurisdiction, but in negligence, the officer must owe a “duty of care” to the victim such as a special relationship with the plaintiff that distinguishes it from general police responsibility to the public.

Types of misconduct leading to emotional distress.

  • Excessive Force – utilizing more physical force than necessary to subdue a criminal causing bodily harm or death – this can lead to actions or accusations of crimes against a person including: 1) assault; 2) sexual assault; 3) battery;  and 4) battery with a deadly weapon
  • Physical coercion or harassment in the subtle form of making a victim uncomfortable by inducing pain or discomfort during questioning, or even torturing them to give the answers police desire, which may not be the actual facts of an incident.
  • False arrest is the unlawful restraint of a person’s freedom of movement, and can result from police providing false information in a police report, offering false evidence or lying in court.
  • Wrongful search and seizure activity, including unreasonable searches relating to gathered evidence, can cause an overturned conviction if it is found that the evidence was the basis of the charges posed on a victim by misguided police activities.
  • Bias-based policing is the intentional practice by an individual law enforcement officer who incorporates prejudicial judgments based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religious beliefs, or age, that are inappropriately applied in the performance of his/her duties.


Some states require physical injury for emotional distress suits to proceed.  The thought process is that courts are more likely to require physical harm resulting from the emotional distress such as headaches, ulcers, or medical conditions, making it easier to prove a case against an officer.   Damages may include hospital/medical expenses; past and future permanent disability payments; costs for treatment of emotional distress including depression and anxiety; loss of enjoyment of life; physical pain and suffering; and loss of love and companionship.  A police brutality lawyer may be able to help with legal action against an officer for causing emotional distress.

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