The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government officials from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers are prohibited from arresting individuals without probable cause or a warrant. The term “false arrest” is shorthand for an unreasonable seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.
I. Probable Cause
Probable cause is a fluid concept that takes into account the common-sense judgments of police officers based on the totality of the circumstances. Probable cause to arrest a suspect will exist if at the time of the arrest, the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer’s knowledge and of which he has reasonably trustworthy information would warrant a prudent person in believing that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense. However, probable cause requires more than just a suspicion of misconduct.
Police officers are not allowed to arrest persons when they lack probable cause.
II. Jury Instructions
In Cook County and the surrounding counties, claims against police officers are often brought in federal court. The Seventh Circuit Pattern Jury Instructions contain the jury instructions that federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin must use in excessive force cases. These instructions provide that in order for a plaintiff to succeed in a false arrest claim, the plaintiff must prove: (1) that the defendant arrested plaintiff; (2) that the defendant did not have probable cause to arrest the plaintiff, and (3) that the defendant acted under color of law.
A person who is employed by the government acts “under color of law” if he uses or misuses authority that he has because of his official position. A person may act under color of law even if he is violating a state or local law or policy. A jury may find that a defendant officer acted under color of law even if he acted outside his official authority.
If a plaintiff successfully shows that he was falsely arrested, he is entitled to damages. A person falsely arrested can recovery monetary damages for things such as:
Physical pain and suffering
Mental and emotional pain and suffering
Disability or loss of normal life
The reasonable value of property lost or destroyed
The reasonable value of medical care and treatment and the present cash value of medical treatment reasonably certain to be needed in the future
The wages that the plaintiff lost due to the false arrest as well as any wages reasonably certain to be lost in the future
Punitive damages may also be awarded if the defendant police officer’s conduct was malicious or if the officer recklessly disregarded the plaintiff’s rights. An officer’s conduct will be considered malicious if it is accompanied by ill will or spite, or is done for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff. An officer will be considered to have recklessly disregarded a plaintiff’s rights if, under the circumstances, the evidence shows that the officer simply did not care about plaintiff’s safety or rights.