The Constitution grants you certain rights and protections. Police have to walk a very fine line when doing their jobs to ensure that your rights aren’t infringed without cause. Thanks to a civil-war era law, you have the right to hold police officers responsible for acts of misconduct. Under Section 1983 of the United States Code, you can file a lawsuit against an officer for violating or depriving you of your fundamental rights. Find out more about filing a civil lawsuit by contacting Injury Trial Lawyers, APC, a San Diego, CA based personal injury law firm.
What is Section 1983?
Section 1983 dates back to the end of the civil war. It is initially intended as a way to allow African Americans to protect themselves from anticipated racial discrimination. Under the law, former slaves could sue police officers or state officials if they tried to oppress and/or restrict their rights. Despite being intended to help newly freed slaves integrate into American society, Section 1983 was not widely used until the 1960s.
Specifically, Section 1983 states:
“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”
It can be more easily explained by saying that the law provides citizens with the right to sue police for harm caused by the violation of protected rights. In truth, Section 1983 lawsuits aren’t limited to police. Any “person” who is “acting under color of state law” can be named in a Section 1983 suit.
Why is Section 1983 Important?
Prior to the enactment of Section 1983, ordinary citizens had little recourse if a police officer violated their rights. Why? Police (and others in power) are generally immune from civil lawsuits for acts committed on the job. With immunity, you can’t sue the government unless the government decides to allow the claim. Section 1983 allows victims of police misconduct to work around the immunity issue. Without Section 1983, it would be nearly impossible to hold officers personally responsible for harm caused by violations of your rights.
Do I Have a Section 1983 Case?
You may have a valid Section 1983 claim if:
- Your rights were violated
- By a person acting under color of state law, and
- This violation caused you to suffer an injury.
You must prove each of these things in order to win your Section 1983 case.
Violation of Protected Rights
Section 1983 states that you have the right to sue any person acting under governmental authority who is responsible for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and law.” As a result, nearly any violation of a state or federal right can be the basis for a Section 1983 lawsuit. Most Section 1983 lawsuits involve a violation of:
- First Amendment rights
- Fourth Amendment rights
- Fifth Amendment rights
- Sixth Amendment rights
- Eighth Amendment rights, and
- Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Examples include illegal searches and seizures, police brutality, cruel and unusual punishment of an inmate, and coerced confessions.
It’s important to find evidence that shows the violation occurred because the person acting under color of state law:
- Did not perform his or her job duties in good faith
- Deliberately interfered with your rights, and/or
- Consciously disregarded your rights.
Person Acting Under Color of State Law
A Section 1983 claim can only be valid if your rights were violated by a person acting under color of state law. A person can include an individual, municipality, or local government body. State and federal agencies are specifically excluded from the definition of “person” for Section 1983 purposes. A Section 1983 claim may be brought if your rights were violated by a:
- Police officer or chief
- Police department
- Sheriff’s deputy or department
- Prison guard or warden
- Prison facility
- School district, or
- City, town, or county official or agency.
In addition to being categorized as a “person” for the purposes of Section 1983, the person must have also been acting under color of state law. This simply means that the person was acting with authority granted by some law or custom. In theory, this can extend to both government and non-government actors.
It’s not enough that your rights were violated by a person acting under color of state law. You must also have suffered some sort of injury because of the misconduct. Injuries can be physical, emotional, financial, or even social.
You can demand compensation for your injuries. Damages that may be awarded in a Section 1983 case could include those for:
- Medical expenses
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
- Lost wages
- Injury to reputation
- Legal fees, and
If there was a blatant and malicious deprivation of your rights, you may also be entitled to an award of punitive damages. These are intended to punish the police officer (or other person) for their misconduct.