What is a Use of Force Expert in a Criminal Trial?

March 27, 2022 Criminal Defense

The assistance of an expert witness can play a pivotal role in the defense against a criminal charge. There are many different kinds of expert witnesses, but all have the same underlying goal – to offer an opinion that will assist the judge or jury in reaching a decision. They do so by providing information or technical knowledge, applying their knowledge in the subject area to the facts of the case at issue, and arriving at an overall conclusion.  In a study by the Federal Judicial Center which polled 303 Federal district court judges, “92% of trials had at least one expert for the plaintiff, 79% had at least one expert for the defendant, and 73% had at least one expert on both sides.” This statistic shows that retaining an expert witness is one of the strongest cards you can have in your deck when you are involved in a criminal case. One of the most common kinds of expert witnesses in a criminal trial is a use of force expert. This blog will explore the diverse and unique role a use of force expert plays in a criminal trial.

What is “Use of Force”?

The term “use of force” is used in the context of law enforcement, and is defined as “the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” Law enforcement officers should use only the amount of force necessary to “mitigate an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm. The levels, or continuum, of force police use, include basic verbal and physical restraint, less-lethal force, and lethal force.” Because no two situations are the same, a use of force expert is often used to determine whether the officer’s response and application of force was appropriate and necessary given the circumstances of the situation.

What Does the Expert Do?

Such experts may consult or offer testimony at trial regarding a wide range of use of force issues, including those involving the use of handcuffs, mace, batons, tasers, or other means of restraint. They may also consult or offer testimony police use of force generally, police-involved shootings, murder investigations, and self-defense, among other topics. These experts may also provide reports on improper arrests or force used while the defendant is in custody. In order to determine whether or not the use of force was excessive, a use of force expert will review the officer’s training, experience, and background, as well as the events that transpired before, during, and after the force was used, in order to make a determination as to the officers’ actions and whether or not they were appropriate.

Why Are They Important?

Use of force experts are imperative in criminal cases because a large proportion of people who are selected to serve on juries are simply unaware of the realities of law enforcement, policing, and what happens when a defendant is brought into custody. Most often, their beliefs on these topics are shaped by what they’ve seen in movies, television, what they’ve heard on the radio or read about, as well as what they have been exposed to by other parts of the media. Therefore, they generally have very limited knowledge of the legal aspects behind law enforcement’s use of force. Most defense attorneys turn to experts to help fill in the gaps of the case at hand – ultimately answering the questions of jurors by offering a credible opinion about what happened and why, as well as what should have happened given the circumstances.


Generally, people become expert witnesses from their special training, education, knowledge, first-hand experience, or a combination thereof. Therefore, most use of force expert witnesses are “academics, retired or former law enforcement officers (including many former chiefs and sheriffs), or current or former law enforcement executives and/or consultants.”

Prominent Case

Retaining a use of force expert witness to determine whether law enforcement officers used excessive force is incredibly common, by both plaintiffs and defendants. One prominent case that featured a use of force expert was the trial of Derek Chauvin, a law enforcement officer who murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes while he was restrained. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and use of force expert, offered testimony to jurors, stating that the actions of Chauvin violated those of a reasonable officer throughout the fatal arrest. He provided a 100-page-plus report, reviewed and commented on the bodycam footage, and explained to the jury the reasonableness standard. This standard “is a four-step process that determines whether an officer’s use-of-force decisions are legitimate and based on relevant facts and circumstances as seen through the lens of the officer on the scene.” Stoughton, who testified he reviewed all available footage of the incident and prepared for over 130 hours for the case, also discussed the position that Floyd was put in, and how it was only “supposed to be transitory” rather than last for minutes and minutes. Ultimately, the jury found Chauvin guilty of second -and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. 

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, it is imperative you reach out to an experienced Tallahassee criminal defense attorney who will exhaust all measures, including finding and retaining an expert witness that will help your case. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience and will fight zealously for your freedom. Contact us today at (850) 681 – 7777 or send an online message today to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Sarah Kamide

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