The Rights and Responsibilities of an Off-Duty Police Officer

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What becomes of a police officer when they clock out? Just because they are on a weekend or summer break, do they cease to be held to the same standards as their active counterparts? Can they make arrests? Should they stand idly by and watch a robbery unfold? The lines between active and off-duty rights and responsibilities are somewhat intertwined and sometimes blurry. Here are the rights and limits applicable to officers when they go off the clock.

Acting under color of law

The ‘color of law’ is a concept used in court to determine whether the acts of an off-duty police are conducted under their legal rights. Generally, an off-duty officer who shoots and kills his neighbor over a noise dispute may not claim to have acted under the ‘color of law.’ In such a case, his employer (his designated police department) is not liable for the conduct of the officer. If, on the other hand, the off-duty officer responds to a store robbery, identifies himself and proceeds to engage in a shootout with the robber, he would have acted under the ‘color of law’. The implication for acting under the color of law is that a plaintiff may bring a civil rights claim to a federal court against the officer or their department. In other words, if an off-duty officer chooses to use state authority to take action, they could be federally liable for a civil rights claim.

Right to carry concealed firearms

President George W. Bush signed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) into law on July, 22, 2004. Under the Act, qualified active law enforcement officers and qualified retired law enforcement officers can carry concealed firearms anywhere in the country as long as they bring along appropriate identification. A law enforcement officer who has clocked out for the day or is not on official duty over the holidays, for example, can still carry firearms. However, in adhering to the Gun-Free School Zone Act, off-duty officers may not carry concealed firearms within 1,000 feet of an elementary or secondary school, unless they have a license to do so.

Power to arrest

Off-duty officers have the power to arrest suspected lawbreakers within their jurisdiction. Ideally, when they clock-off, police officers should not intervene in non-emergencies. However, if a situation is potentially dangerous, they can intervene, make an arrest and call for backup from an active duty officer. It is worthwhile noting that officers only have the right to make such arrests within their jurisdiction. An officer can be personally liable if they make arrests outside of their assigned jurisdiction and this arrest results to loss of life or property, or injury to a person.

Right to use force

In light of recent incidents where police have shot down civilians, there has been a sharp focus on the extent to which officers can use force. Off-duty officers, like their active duty counterparts, have the right to exercise force, but only to the extent that their life is in jeopardy. According to the former director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, Dale Mann, police agencies allow a reasonable officer to use force if they believe that their life or that of another citizen’s is in danger. Even then, off-duty police officers can be convicted in a federal civil rights claims case if it is established that their use of force was disproportionate or unwarranted.

Reasonable conduct

The duty to act in a responsible manner does not end the moment an officer clocks-out. Off-duty officers are required to uphold integrity, discipline and ethics in their private life. In many ways, the private behavior of a police officer is entwined with the public image of their police department; an officer’s conduct could paint a good or bad picture of their entire police agency. Although police officers are entitled to the same right to privacy, they could be dismissed from the force if their behavior is so unlawful or morally questionable.

It is important for officers to contemplate about the implications of taking off-duty action. Such actions, though well-meaning, have the potential of exposing the officer to civil and criminal liability.