Strict Tort Liability for Police Misconduct

By Elias R. Feldman

The disproportionate rates at which police use wrongful deadly force against racial minorities in the United States is a matter of significant national concern. This Note contributes to the ongoing conversation by proposing a new legal reform, which calls for the state law imposition of strict tort liability on municipal governments for police misconduct. Such a reform could remedy the harms of police misconduct more fully than the existing laws do.

Under the Restatement (Third) of Torts, a person who is found by a court to have carried on an “abnormally dangerous activity” will be subject to strict liability for physical harm resulting from that activity. An abnormally dangerous activity is one which creates a foreseeable and highly significant risk of harm even when reasonable care is exercised in its performance; it is also an activity of “uncommon usage” in the sense that the risk it creates is nonreciprocal. In Part II, this Note explains how the policies and practices of modern policing, in conjunction with human cognitive limitations, cause policing to create a foreseeable and highly significant risk of harm even when performed with reasonable care. Part III then explains how policing’s risk is disproportionately borne by racial minorities, and how this nonreciprocity of risk imposes a dignitary harm on third-party racial minorities distinct from the physical harm suffered by police misconduct’s immediate victims. Part IV, in turn, discusses how policing’s nonreciprocal risk also makes policing “uncommon” in the relevant sense. Having established that policing is the kind of activity to which strict liability can be properly applied as a matter of law, this Note argues in Part V that imposing strict tort liability on municipalities for police misconduct is desirable as a matter of policy because strict liability rules are uniquely effective at correcting the misallocation of social costs and benefits stemming from nonreciprocal risk. Finally, this Note concludes in Part VI by anticipating possible political and legal objections to the proposed reform.

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