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Police officers accused in wrongful death of homeless man

Just because police officers may be acquitted of criminal wrongdoing in an incident involving the death of an individual does not necessarily mean that they may not be liable for civil charges. This is a conclusion that may be drawn from a case out of Santa Ana involving two police officers and the death of a homeless man.

The incident arose from a violent encounter the police had with the deceased during which the officers used a Taser in its primary function as well as to deliver physical blows to his head. According to a pathology report, the man died five days after the beating as a result of suffocating from the injuries he sustained.

Although the two officers were acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the death, an internal police report found that they had violated the city's use-of-force policy; that report is now part of a wrongful death claim that has been commenced against them.

Although questions exist as to the propriety of the use of the police internal report, the central import of the news account remains: civil lawsuits in California, including wrongful death actions, do not require the same burden of proof that criminal actions do. Civil actions can be proven based on a preponderance of the evidence, instead of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal cases. This means that regardless of the outcome of a criminal case, a civil action filed in connection with the same underlying events has a better chance of success.

Source: Sacramento Bee, "Report: California police erred in arrest before man's death," Gillian Flaccus, August 10, 2015

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