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Can You Sue a Sheriff’s Department for Defamation?

We frequently get the question, “Can you sue a police or sheriff’s department for defamation of character?” The answer is not as straightforward as one might expect. Defamation by a law enforcement agency, such as a sheriff’s department, does happen, and it can take many forms. For instance, it may occur if you are wrongfully arrested and the police department publishes false allegations and your mugshot on their department-run Facebook page. Or, a police officer could make false statements in an affidavit, causing you to be wrongly arrested.

You may be able to sue a police department for defamation if they publish false information about you to a third party and it causes damage to your reputation. But it is important to note that doing so often requires that you overcome the defense of qualified immunity by proving that the sheriff or officer acted with actual malice–that is, knowledge that the statement was false or reckless disregard for the truth.

At Minc Law, we have extensive experience litigating defamation cases across the U.S. and the globe including those involving law enforcement agencies. We have removed over 25,000 pieces of defamatory content from the internet, helped thousands of individuals and businesses restore their online reputations, and done so without drawing further unwanted attention to an already sensitive matter.

In this article, we will explain the circumstances under which filing a lawsuit might be applicable, the challenges and defenses you might encounter, and additional legal claims that may be available to you.

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Understanding Defamation & Its Elements

In a situation where false allegations, content, or information about you is published online by a police or sheriff’s department, one path of legal recourse you may have is a claim for defamation. Understanding what defamation is and how to prove it is vital in such cases.

Defamation can be very damaging, especially when it comes from authorities like the police. These untrue statements can be seen by your friends, family, and colleagues, and can cause a lot of disruption in your personal and professional life. If you did not do anything wrong and the information being spread about you is made up, the effects can be very damaging.

Understanding Defamation

Defamation is an umbrella term that encompasses two forms of false statements: libel and slander. Libel refers to false statements published in a written form or through visual media, such as videos, to a third party. Slander, on the other hand, involves false statements that are published via spoken communication. Remembering the difference can be as simple as associating the “S” in slander with “speech.”

Today, much of the defamation litigation revolves around statements made on the internet, termed internet or online defamation. This form of libel, which includes any false information published in a digital format, has become increasingly common, given the pervasiveness of the internet.

When filing a defamation lawsuit, it may be critical to accurately identify the type of defamation – libel or slander – in your claim. In some jurisdictions, an incorrect classification can lead to the dismissal of your lawsuit and potentially bar you from asserting the correct claim later.

Elements of Defamation

Defamation laws vary by state, but there are typically four key elements that a plaintiff must prove to succeed in a defamation claim.

  1. The defendant published or communicated a false statement about the plaintiff,
  2. The false statement was published or communicated to a third party,
  3. The statement was made with actual malice, or at least a negligent level of intent, which means the defendant acted carelessly in making the statement despite not knowing whether it was true, and
  4. The statement caused damage to the plaintiff’s reputation, causing them personal, professional, or financial harm.

Defamation Per Se

Another important concept in defamation law is “defamation per se,” also known as libel per se or slander per se, depending on whether the statement was written or spoken. Defamation per se refers to certain types of defamatory statements that are so egregious that the harm to the victim’s reputation is automatically presumed.

Typically, most U.S. states categorize a statement as defamation per se if it:

  • Accuses the plaintiff of committing a punishable crime or a crime involving moral turpitude.
  • Alleges that the plaintiff has a loathsome disease.
  • Claims that the plaintiff has engaged in sexual misconduct.
  • States that the plaintiff has acted improperly or unethically in their profession.

However, while harm is presumed in defamation per se cases, the plaintiff still bears the burden of providing evidence of actual harm to successfully receive damages. This proof may be necessary to quantify the level of damage for the court’s consideration.

Situations Involving Law Enforcement Which May Give Rise to a Claim For Defamation

As noted above, because of their role in keeping order and the need to act on uncertain information, police departments are given considerable leeway and can generally not be held liable for negligence or mistakes of fact. Qualified immunity generally requires that you prove that the police knew, or at the very least should have known, that their statements were false.

Despite the significant legal protections in place for law enforcement agencies, certain circumstances may allow for a claim of defamation against a sheriff’s department or individual officers. This typically requires proof that they acted outside the scope of their duties or engaged in misconduct.

For instance, if you are falsely arrested without probable cause, and this leads to false police reports, you may have a defamation claim against the department or the officers involved in the arrest. Similarly, a press release issued by the department communicating your false arrest could be deemed defamatory. However, it is worth noting that news articles accurately reporting police statements are generally not considered defamatory.

The legal liability of a law enforcement agency can extend to digital platforms as well. For example, if a department publishes false allegations or mug shots on its official Facebook page or a Crime Stoppers website, it may be held liable.

Moreover, if an officer or deputy knowingly falsifies an affidavit to support a search or arrest warrant, the officer or government subdivision could be liable for damages resulting from these known falsehoods.

In all of these cases, it is essential to remember that the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. You must demonstrate that the police acted knowingly or recklessly, not merely negligently, to establish a successful defamation claim.

Internet Defamation lawyer Checklist

Suing a Sheriff’s Department For Defamation

To sue a sheriff’s department for spreading false stories or fake reports about you, you must prove that what they said or wrote was truly harmful and untrue. While a variety of legal claims could be potentially explored depending on the circumstance, situations involving fake or unlawful information typically provide grounds for a defamation claim.

Preserve Evidence of the Defamation & Damages

The internet, while making defamation more widespread, also facilitates the process of collecting evidence of defamatory statements. You can take advantage of various free features or apps available in your operating system or web browser. These include:

  • Taking screenshots of the defamatory content.
  • Printing out documents containing defamatory statements.
  • Saving the entire web page. If you use Google Chrome, you can press CTRL+S to save a timestamped HTML version of the website to your hard drive. On Mac, use CMD+S.
  • Backing up emails containing defamatory content to another email account.

In cases of serious defamation, paid tools such as Page Vault and Visualping can provide more advanced evidence preservation capabilities.

However, certain information or evidence may not be directly accessible, as it could be stored on someone else’s server or computer hardware. If there is a risk that such data might be deleted, your attorney can help you send preservation notices to secure the data.

It is important to act swiftly in preserving evidence. Delaying this process risks the loss of potential evidence that could be crucial to your case and could also postpone the start of your defamation lawsuit.

Additionally, gathering witnesses, testimonies, and other forms of supportive evidence can aid in proving your defamation claim. This could include information that refutes the false claims made about you, or that shows the extent of the damage caused by the defamatory statements.

Proving Defamation Over False Allegations

To establish a valid defamation claim over false allegations, you will need to prove the following five elements:

1. False Statement of Fact

One of the most critical components of a defamation claim is the falsity of the statement made about you. This is because truth serves as an absolute defense to defamation. By definition, a false statement is something that is objectively untrue; if it can be proven false through factual evidence, it may be considered defamatory.

However, the definition of truth can sometimes be tricky to pin down. For example, if a statement is substantially true but contains minor inaccuracies, courts have often ruled that this does not constitute defamation. Similarly, opinions are protected, as the First Amendment establishes there is no such thing as a “false idea.” However, opinions mixed with false assertions of fact may give rise to an actionable defamation claim.

2. Of and Concerning the Plaintiff

For a valid defamation claim, there must be a clear link between the plaintiff and the false statement. This does not necessarily mean that the statement must directly name the plaintiff – it is enough if reasonable people would understand that the statement refers to the plaintiff.

3. Communicated to a Third Party: The “Publication Requirement”

Additionally, the defamatory statement must be communicated in some way to a third party. This party must be someone other than the individual making the defamatory statement and the individual who is defamed. This act of sharing the defamatory statement with others is often referred to as the “publication” of the statement.

4. Fault Amounting to at Least Negligence

Fault is a key element in a defamation claim. This means a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant acted with at least a negligent level of intent in determining the truth or falsehood of the statement they published.

In certain situations, including those involving public figures, the plaintiff may have to prove that the defendant published the false statement with actual malice – a significantly higher standard of intent. Demonstrating actual malice requires the plaintiff to show that the defamer either knew their statement was false or acted with a complete disregard for the truth.

5. The Statement Was Not Privileged

Some jurisdictions add this fifth element to defamation claims. Generally, most states recognize that certain communications are privileged and must be permitted for various societal reasons.

Common defenses associated with privileged statements include:

  • Absolute privilege,
  • Qualified privilege,
  • Fair report privilege,
  • Neutral report privilege,
  • Statutory privilege.

Note that qualified privilege is particularly important to consider when dealing with law enforcement matters. We address qualified privilege in further detail below.

6. Causing Damage to the Plaintiff’s Reputation

The final element of a defamation claim is demonstrating that the false statement caused some form of harm to your reputation. This harm could manifest in various ways. For instance, if you are a victim of false allegations and consequently lose your job, this could serve as evidence that your reputation has been significantly damaged.

For a comprehensive guide on filing defamation lawsuits, we recommend reading our article “How to File a Defamation Lawsuit.” Please also see our guide to hiring a defamation lawsuit attorney for further reading.

Qualified Immunity as a Defense For Law Enforcement

If a sheriff’s department spreads false stories about you, it is important to understand the legal doctrine of “privilege.” The defense of privilege protects police and other government workers from liability for the publication of information they share as part of their job, as long as it is in the public interest. The type of privilege can be either absolute or qualified, depending on the situation and the laws in your state.

Absolute privilege provides an all-encompassing (absolute) protection for individuals who publish defamatory statements, even if done so with actual malice. This generally means you cannot sue a speaker or publisher at all for defamation. Qualified privilege, on the other hand, protects individuals from liability for the publication of defamatory statements in specific situations and to a specific audience. This generally means that you may only sue if you can prove that the police knew the information was false when they shared it.

If your specific situation (and statement in question) raises the defense of “qualified privilege,” you will need to show that the speaker shared the false information with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” in order to succeed in your claim. This makes most lawsuits against law enforcement very tough. In some states, you may even have to pay for their lawyers as well as your own (should you lose your case). This is why it is usually not a good idea to sue the police for defamation or another legal issue unless you have a strong case.

It is worth noting that a sheriff’s department may, in some instances, be held vicariously liable for the actions of its employees, such as police officers or deputies. Furthermore, if the department fails to adequately supervise its officers, it may be held directly accountable for defamation committed by its employees.

What Should You Be Aware of When Suing a Police Department For Defamation?

Before proceeding with a defamation lawsuit against a police department, it is important to be aware of several potential pitfalls. Lawsuits are public records, and this process could inadvertently draw more attention to the very content you aim to remove, a phenomenon referred to as the “Streisand Effect.”

There are also important legal aspects to consider. For instance, the lawsuit must be filed with the correct jurisdiction, and defendants must be served with a notice of the lawsuit. Some jurisdictions also have pre-suit requirements, such as providing the defendant with an opportunity to retract their statement and giving them adequate notice of the impending lawsuit.

It is also vital to remember that litigation outcomes are never guaranteed. Even with strong facts in your favor and full compliance with all legal requirements, it is possible to lose a case. Therefore, lawsuits should be seen as a last resort, to be filed only in the gravest of circumstances when all other non-legal alternatives have failed or would prove ineffective. As such, consider exploring all options and seek professional legal counsel before deciding to initiate a defamation lawsuit against a police department.

For further reading, please see our comprehensive guide ‘How Much Does a Defamation Lawsuit Cost?’

What Remedies Are Available When Suing a Sheriff’s Department For Defamation?

If a police department knowingly spreads false statements about you, leading to adverse impacts on your career, health, finances, or reputation, it might be possible to file a lawsuit to recover damages. Damages are designed to compensate for the harm suffered as a result of a false publication. Also, you may be entitled to an injunction, which is a court order requiring the police department to cease its unlawful activities.

Even in circumstances where absolute or qualified privilege hinders your ability to sue for slander or libel, there are other remedies you might explore.

One such alternative is contacting the sheriff’s department or the media outlet that published the information and requesting a correction or retraction of the false statement. Numerous law enforcement agencies have established protocols to handle public complaints and requests for amendments. Therefore, exploring this avenue could potentially lead to rectification without the need to resort to a full-blown lawsuit. Of course, it is always advisable to seek legal counsel to guide you through this complex process.

For further reading, please see our resources answering if an employer can sue an employee for defamation and if you can sue if you are falsely accused of racism.

Additional Legal Claims if a Sheriff’s Department Reports False Allegations About You

When confronted with false allegations from a sheriff’s department, the nature of your case and the extent of the harm you have experienced may give rise to various legal claims. These could include defamation, false arrest or malicious prosecution, and violations of civil rights under state or federal law.

Civil Rights Violation & Due Process Violation

In situations where a government agency spreads false information resulting in a violation of your civil rights, including due process rights, you might have a basis to sue. Such rights are guaranteed by various statutes such as the Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the U.S. Constitution.

For instance, if the false information is used as grounds for wrongfully depriving you of your right to life, liberty, or property, or if it is used to discriminate against you based on your race, gender, age, disability, or other protected status, you could potentially recover damages on these grounds.

It is crucial to note that the specific circumstances of each case dictate the viability of legal claims. Therefore, we highly recommend consulting with a competent attorney who can guide you through your available legal options.

False Arrest & Malicious Prosecution

In circumstances where you are arrested or prosecuted for a crime without law enforcement having any reasonable basis or probable cause to believe that you committed the crime, you may have a cause of action for false arrest or malicious prosecution if charges are filed against you based on fabricated evidence or false allegations.

If You Have Been Defamed by a Sheriff’s Office, We Can Help You Explore Legal Options

Being accused of a crime or falsely arrested can be devastating. It can have catastrophic effects on both your personal and professional life and navigating the intricacies of a defamation claim against a sheriff’s department or other government agency can be overwhelming and confusing.

At Minc Law, we can help you explore valid legal claims you may have and cost-effective alternatives to litigation. We have extensive experience navigating the difficult issues and defenses presented and mitigating the damaging effects of online defamation. We also know how highly sensitive these matters can be and know how to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the matter.

★★★★★

“I feel so relieved and grateful to Minc Law. And in particular, to the help of Nathan Woodward and his staff. I had requested repeatedly and unsuccessfully removal of a comment on an organization’s website that I had not wanted used publicly for marketing purposes. I could not for the life of me reach the owner of the site despite varied attempts. Mr. Woodward was able to reach and solicit response from the owner, so that the content was taken down SWIFTLY and my problem resolved. Mr. Woodward and the Minc Law team handled my case professionally and efficiently, with a very fair fee structure as well.”

G.C.
May 4, 2023

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This page has been peer-reviewed, fact-checked, and edited by qualified attorneys to ensure substantive accuracy and coverage.

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