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Is it Police Brutality if the Police Don’t Cause Physical Harm?


On August 3, a man in Texas was arrested for criminal trespassing. What happened afterward became yet another example of police overstepping boundaries, and a good example of a potential case for emotional distress damages.

Man is Publicly Humiliated

At the time of the man’s arrest, only police mounted on horses were available. The officers could have simply waited for officers in a police cruiser to come. Rather than do that, they opted to tie a rope to the man’s handcuffs, walking him by that leash as he walked behind their horses. It looked like a scene out of pre-civil war America, and the photo (taken by an onlooker) quickly went viral.

The officers later apologized, and the Galveston Texas police department said that it would no longer use the practice that was used on the man.

However, the department was also quick to point out that the police had no malicious intent, and the man was not physically harmed or brutalized in any way. As such, the police department contends, the officers broke no law. The state prosecutor apparently agrees, as there will be no criminal investigation of these officers’ actions.

The police department has also been very protective of information surrounding the arrest. For example, they have refused to turn over body camera footage of the arrest. It also appears that although the department says that no policy was broken, it has yet to provide any citation in its policy manuals where such actions are allowed.

Damages When There is No Physical Harm

It is not known whether the man of his family will file a civil lawsuit for damages. However, the case brings up an interesting question: Can someone sue for emotional damages that stem from police misconduct or brutality. In other words, assuming the police do no physical harm but otherwise act outrageously, can someone sue for damages?

The answer generally is yes, although it is not easy. Any claim for emotional damages, whether it is from police misconduct or an accident or other form of personal injury, is looked at carefully by courts and possibly as suspect.

Unlike physical injury, where there are X-rays or diagnostic tests to show damage, with emotional injuries, there is no way to objectively tell whether someone has truly suffered emotional injury.

Outrageous Police Conduct

However in situations where police act intentionally or recklessly (a higher standard than simply acting negligently), and the act causes emotional distress, a victim can sue for damages.

The officers’ behavior has to be what a court would consider outrageous. Courts consider outrageous behavior to be something that is beyond just being bothersome, mean, uncaring or offensive. Some courts will apply the “reasonable person” test, asking if someone in the same or similar situation would suffer emotional distress.

Have you been a victim of harassment or police misconduct? Contact the Alabama police misconduct attorneys at Lasseter Law Firm today to discuss whether you have a cause of action for damages.


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