Mountain Law: How much force are Colorado police allowed to use during an arrest?
Special to the Daily
How much force are Colorado police officers allowed to use when making an arrest? This article provides an overview of the law in this area.
Colorado law generally authorizes police officers to use all necessary and reasonable force to make an arrest. Specifically, Colorado law authorizes police officers to use force to carry out an arrest or prevent a suspect from escaping, or to defend themselves or a third person from use or imminent use of force.
The degree of force allowed depends on the threat posed by the suspect. Generally, Colorado law allows physical force to be met with physical force and deadly force to be met with physical force or deadly force. A rough way to say this rule is that deadly force is only authorized for felonies that involve the use or threatened use of a deadly weapon, but not for misdemeanors.
Deadly force is also authorized if the suspect indicates that he is likely to endanger human life or to inflict serious bodily injury to another unless apprehended without delay. There is an exception, however, that deadly force is not permitted when the offense involves a motor vehicle violation.
Colorado law makes it a crime for a police officer to use “excessive force.” For purposes of the applicable statute, excessive force is force not otherwise authorized as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. A police officer is presumed to be using excessive force when he continues to apply physical force to a person who has been rendered incapable of resisting arrest. Police officers have a duty to report the use of force by other officers and failure to do so within 10 days is a misdemeanor.
The law recognizes that police officers are routinely placed into situations where they must decide in a split second whether to use force, including deadly force. They face potential injury to themselves and others if they don’t act and the possibility of committing a crime or facing civil liability if they go too far. Recognizing this predicament, case law indicates that whether the use of force was reasonable and necessary must be judged through the eyes of the officer based on the specific moment that the decision was made, not based on facts and circumstances that may come to light later with perfect hindsight. A police officer is allowed to be mistaken concerning her decision to use force, even if this causes injury, provided that the mistake is reasonable under the facts and circumstances.
Similarly, case law indicates that force becomes necessary based on apparent danger, not necessarily actual danger. Police officers are trained to recognize suspicious behavior such as a person reaching for his waistband where a weapon might be hidden. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that an officer need not “await the glint of steel” before he can act to preserve his safety. Rather, the applicable test is whether the officer “reasonably could have believed” that force was necessary in light of clearly established law and the information the officer possessed at the time.
When a person accuses law enforcement of using excessive force, it is the amount of force used that matters, not whether the arrest was justified. Excessive force is not justified simply because the arrest itself is justified, nor does a wrongful arrest necessarily mean that force was unjustified. However, the victim of a wrongful arrest will often attempt to use that fact to show that force was unjustified.
In sum, Colorado law attempts to strike a balance between reasonable and necessary force required for effective law enforcement and excessive force that violates citizens’ rights. Each situation must be judged based on the unique facts and circumstances that were presented to the police officer at the time.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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