Federal Civil Rights Acts

The Federal Civil Rights Acts[1] provide the statutory basis for federal actions against federal, state, and/or local officials and all government actors.  The most frequently invoked statute is 42 United States Code Annotated Section 1983, which provides:

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, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.[2]

The Supreme Court in Monroe v. Pape[3] identified three main goals and/or objectives that was envisioned by the Congress for enacting the Federal Civil Rights Acts: 1) to make ineffective certain type of state laws; 2) to provide legal action or remedy where state law was found to be inadequate; and 3) to provide a federal action and remedy where the state process, although in existence, was not really available or practical.[4]          

Now, in order to establish liability under Section 1983, a plaintiff must be able to prove that he or she has been deprived of a federal statutory or constitutional right by someone acting under the color of law.[5]  Acting under the color of law covers all those that have the power to act under a governmental authority such as police officers and governmental officials, including city, county, state, and federal actors.[6]  Furthermore, to act under color of law means to act outside the bounds of lawful authority or in contradiction with existing laws, but in such a manner that the acts were done while the governmental actor or official was professing or pretending to act in the performance of his or her official duties under the law.[7]  Simply put, the unlawful acts must consist of exploitation, infringement, abuse, or misuse of power or authority.[8] 

Nevertheless, not every exploitation, infringement, abuse, or misuse of power or authority rises to the level of a civil rights claim; such misconduct may be characterized as either actual constitutional violations or negligence claims.  Of course, most alleged violations fall under a negligence claim rather than a Section 1983 action.  For example, police officers are routinely involved in dangerous procedures and with dangerous types of equipment.  Lack of due care in using police equipment or lack of due care in performing police procedures may give rise to liability under negligence theory; however, under Section 1983, such lack of care is not actionable for a civil rights violation.[9]  Nevertheless, most common causes of action for violations of constitutional rights are police misconducts such as 1) excessive force and physical brutality; 2) illegal arrest; 3) illegal search and seizure; 4) abuse of process; 5) racial profiling, and 6) falsifying documents. 

If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation, the best place to start is to speak with an attorney.  Your attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case. 

[1] See 42 USCA §§1981-1988.

[2] See 42 USCA § 1983.

[3] Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S. Ct. 473, 5 L. Ed. 2d 492 (1961). 

[4] See Monroe, 365 U.S. at 172-83.

[5] See 42 USCA § 1983.

[6] See generally, Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 101 S. Ct. 1908, 68 L. Ed. 2d. 420 (1981).  Color of law is a legal term used in official misconduct cases.  It means that the law enforcement officer acted while abusing the authority given to him or her by reason of his or her employment as a public official.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See generally, City of Los Angeles, v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 103 S. Ct. 1660, 75 L. Ed. 2d 675 (1983). 


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