Section 1983 Lawsuit: Suing Police for Civil Rights Violations

Section 1983 refers to a federal statute that allows people to sue for certain kinds of civil rights violations, including excessive police force.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 is a federal statute—numbered 42 U.S.C. § 1983—that allows people to sue the government for civil rights violations. Lawyers sometimes refer to cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as "Section 1983" lawsuits.

What Is a Section 1983 Lawsuit?

A Section 1983 lawsuit is a civil remedy. It applies when someone acting "under color of" state-level or local law has deprived a person of rights created by the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes. Basically, the law gives victims a legal avenue to hold government actors accountable if they use their position to deprive someone of their constitutional rights (such as to be free from unreasonable search and seizure).

Section 1983 can apply in many scenarios, and claims under it don't have to involve violence. But it's often invoked when someone claims to be the victim of excessive police force.

Who Can a Victim Sue Under Section 1983?

For Section 1983 to come into play, the person to be sued (the defendant) must have acted "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia … ." (42 U.S.C. § 1983.)

What Does It Mean to Act Under Color of Law?

Courts have determined that the "under color of" clause requires that the wrongdoer qualify, at least in some sense, as a representative of the state when depriving the victim of civil rights. In a nutshell, the clause refers to people who misuse some kind of authority that they get from state law. Police officers who use excessive force generally fit this bill.

Police Officers Acting Under Color of Law

Judges can consider a number of factors to decide whether, when violating someone's federal rights, an officer was acting under the color of state law. Among them are whether the officer:

  • was on duty
  • was wearing a police uniform
  • used police equipment (like a squad car or handcuffs)
  • flashed a badge or otherwise claimed to be an officer, or
  • carried out an arrest.

When a Section 1983 suit has to do with an arrest—a central police function—a court will normally consider the officer to have acted under color of state law. In these cases, a victim might also sue the police or sheriff's department, a supervisor, or the city or county employing the officer.

Other Government Officials Acting Under Color of Law

While this article focuses primarily on police, they are not the only state actors who can be sued for civil rights violations under Section 1983. A person may be acting under color of law in their role as a jailor or prison guard, an election official, social services, or a school district, for example.

What Is a Civil Rights Violation by Police?

In a Section 1983 action, the plaintiff (victim) will also need to show that the police violated a constitutional right or a right protected by federal law, which caused harm and resulted in damages. Common claims include:

Failure to provide a Miranda warning does not provide a basis for a section 1983 claim because it's not a constitutional violation. (Vega v. Tekoh, 597 U.S. __ (2022).)

What Type of Compensation or Damages Can a Victim Seek in a Section 1983 Action?

Victims can seek several types of damages in a Section 1983 lawsuit, including compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages seek to make the injured victim "whole" by putting a dollar figure on the victim's losses (hospital bills, property damage, income loss, or emotional distress). If actual damages are difficult to prove, the court may award nominal damages to approximate the harm caused. In egregious cases, the court may award punitive damages, which are meant to "punish" the wrongdoer and prevent the same conduct from happening again.

What Defenses Do Government Officials Raise in Section 1983 Lawsuits?

Government officials—including police officers—often raise qualified immunity as a shield against liability. Qualified immunity protects officials for their discretionary acts unless the act was so egregious that they should have known they were violating clearly established constitutional rights.

The shield of qualified immunity is meant to allow police officers to do their jobs without the fear of constant lawsuits. Police must make tough, on-the-spot decisions in performing their jobs—some of which are a matter of life and death. However, the shield is so strong that it's often criticized as preventing harmed victims from being able to vindicate their rights and seek compensation for wrongs committed against them.

Getting Help

If you want to know whether you have a lawsuit against the police or anyone else, consider consulting an attorney experienced in personal injury or civil rights. A knowledgeable lawyer should be able to explain your options, including potential bases for suing and people and entities who could be liable. The attorney should also know about possible defenses and whether the defendant could qualify for some kind of immunity from the lawsuit. If you have a criminal case, make sure to also talk to a criminal defense attorney.

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