What Is a "Section 1983" Lawsuit Against the Police?

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows people to sue for certain kinds of civil rights violations, including excessive police force.

By , Attorney

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. 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.

Lawyers sometimes refer to cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as "Section 1983" lawsuits. 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.

"Under Color of" State Law

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.A. § 1983 (2020).)

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.

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.

Section 1983 Example

A man and a friend went to the police station to talk about a pending case. As the man was leaving, an officer arrested him for disorderly conduct. According to the man, the police used far too much force in the arrest process. He claimed officers slammed his head against the pavement, knocking him unconscious. He also asserted that officers beat him after he regained consciousness.

After the man sued the police under Section 1983, the officers tried to get the case dismissed. One of their arguments was that the man (now the plaintiff) didn't present any evidence showing monetary losses suffered due to the incident—for instance, medical bills and lost wages.

The appeals court hearing the case held that the plaintiff didn't have to show evidence of "direct monetary loss" in order to establish that he deserved compensation. The court held that the plaintiff could show he was entitled to damages by presenting evidence of physical pain or emotional distress resulting from the incident. And, the court said, even a Section 1983 plaintiff who can't show these kinds of losses can be entitled to nominal damages. (Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225, 1227 (11th Cir. 2000).)

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 lawsuit. If you have a criminal case, make sure to also talk to a criminal defense attorney.

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