Section 1983 Lawsuits
It seems like there is a story in the news about police brutality or excessive force every day. Police officers do have fairly broad authority to use some degree of force to do their jobs effectively. However, the Constitution also protects everyday citizens from abuses of power. When police officers cross the line, victims can be seriously hurt. Thanks to Section 1983 of the United States Code, victims have the right to hold officers legally responsible for their harmful actions.
What is Section 1983?
Section 1983 is important because it allows citizens to hold police officers (and other government actors) responsible for their illegal and harmful actions. Without Section 1983, police officers could potentially use excessive force, conduct illegal searches, and abuse everyday citizens without recourse. Section 1983 gives you the right to assert your Constitutional protections.
Section 1983 states that:
“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.”
In other words, police officers can be held personally responsible for harmful conduct carried out in an official capacity. The law makes it difficult for police officers and government agents to hide behind the protections of immunity.
Why is Section 1983 Important?
Section 1983 is important because it allows victims of abuse to file lawsuits directly against the person who harmed them. Without Section 1983, police officers and government actors would be able to hide behind the protections of immunity. In fact, many defendants named in Section 1983 cases will still try to rely on immunity as a first line of defense.
- Sovereign Immunity: Offers immunity from civil lawsuits to individuals who were acting in an official capacity.
- Qualified Immunity: Offers immunity from civil lawsuits to individuals who were performing their discretionary job duties in good faith.
Immunity cannot protect officers or actors if the person:
- Acted with intentional or conscious disregard of your rights,
- Did not act in good faith, or
- Deliberately interfered with your rights.
It will be important to gather evidence to show that immunity does not protect the person who violated your rights.
How Do I Know If I Have a Section 1983 Case?
There are four primary elements of a Section 1983 lawsuit. Section 1983 will apply when:
- One (or more) of your Constitutional rights has been violated,
- By a person,
- Acting under color of law, and
- You suffer an injury.
You must be able to prove each of these things to file a successful Section 1983 claim.
Constitutional Right(s) Violated
The purpose of Section 1983 is to safeguard your Constitutional rights. As a result, you can only bring a Section 1983 claim when one of your fundamental rights has been violated. These include:
- The Fourth Amendment (e.g., illegal search and seizure)
- The Fifth Amendment (e.g., forcing a suspect to disclose incriminating evidence)
- The Eighth Amendment (e.g., cruel and unusual punishment of prison inmate), and
- The Fourteenth Amendment (e.g., police use of excessive force).
Section 1983 explains that you are protected from abuses and illegal conduct of every “person” acting under color of law. Who is a “person” for the purposes of Section 1983? Is this limited to individuals, or can larger governmental organizations also fall under the definition? These questions became increasingly important when Section 1983 claims became more prevalent in the 1960s. They were so important that they reached the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court held that a “person” can include individuals, municipalities, and even local governments. State agencies and governments are specifically excluded from the definition of “person.”
A Section 1983 lawsuit may be successful if your rights were violated by a:
- Police officer
- Police chief
- Police department
- Sheriff’s deputy
- County sheriff
- Prison guard
- Prison warden
- Prison facility
- Non-government employees
- Non-government entities
- Government employees
- City or town employee or agency, or
- County employee or agency.
Section 1983 cases can even be successful if your rights were violated by a school district employee or official.
Under Color of Law
Section 1983 only applies if a person is acting “under color of state law.” According to the Supreme Court, this means acting with any power that is “possessed by virtue of state law” and “made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.” In other words, under color of state law means:
- Actions performed under the authority of a state law or custom,
- By a person who is authorized to act in an official capacity.
When a person acts under color of state law they have the power to deny or violate another person’s rights. Abuses of this power are actionable under Section 1983.
You must also prove that you have suffered an injury because your rights have been violated. Your injury does not necessarily have to be physical. Your injury could be:
- Social, or
Why Should I File a Section 1983 Lawsuit?
There are two primary reasons for asserting a Section 1983 lawsuit. You can file a Section 1983 claim to:
- Hold police and/or other government actors responsible for their illegal and harmful conduct, and
- Recover monetary compensation for the injuries and harm you have suffered.
What kind of damages can you seek to recover by filing a Section 1983 lawsuit? Your attorney will seek damages for any harm you have suffered, including compensation for:
- Emotional trauma
- Lost wages
- Injury to reputation
- Medical expenses
- Pain and suffering, and
- Legal fees.
You can even seek to recover punitive damages, which are awarded solely to punish the officer (or other person) for their reprehensible actions.
Have you been the victim of police brutality or misconduct? Has someone you love been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment while behind bars? Have your Constitutional rights been violated by a peace officer in some other way? If so, you may have a valid reason to pursue damages with a Section 1983 lawsuit. Our attorneys can help you assert your rights and recover the compensation you deserve. Call us today to schedule a free consultation. We’ll review your case and help you understand your legal options.