Our constitutional rights are inalienable and must not be violated by anyone, especially not the government. When government actors, such as the police, violate these rights as a result of prejudicial biases, the law provides us a remedy in order hold these actors accountable. This is especially true when it comes to our civil rights.
What is 42 U.S.C. Section 1983?
42 United States Code (U.S.C.) Section 1983, also known as the Civil action for deprivation of rights, was passed as a form of remedy for violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This statute allows you to sue the government for civil rights violations. This statute applies when a government actor, like the police, is acting “under color of” state or local law and has deprived an individual of his or her rights as created by the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes. Acting “under color of” state or local law means that the government actor was performing an illegal action, in this case violating one’s civil rights, while performing their official duties as a government employee or actor. This could be illustrated with a police officer that violates one’s civil rights while conducting an arrest or investigation on the job.
What Remedies Are Available Under Section 1983?
In order to obtain remedies under a Section 1983 lawsuit, the two elements of Section 1983, that (1) a conduct was committed by a person acting “under the color of” state or local law and that (2) said conduct deprived the individual of a constitutional right, must be met.
If you can prove these two elements by a preponderance of the evidence, then you are entitled to seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. It must also be made aware that this statute applies to state and local government actors, not federal employees; as such, you can sue a state police officer, but not the FBI under this statute. Nevertheless, this does not prevent you from suing a federal employee under a Bivens case, the Section 1983 equivalent for federal government actors.
What Are Common Claims Sued Under Section 1983?
Common cases that are brought under Section 1983 arise when the police violate an individual’s civil rights.
A police officer acts “under the color” of state law when he or she (1) is on duty, (2) is wearing a police uniform, (3) is using police equipment, such as squad car or handcuffs, (4) has shown a badge or claims to be an officer, or (5) has carried out an arrest. A police officer violates the law when he or she (1) shows excessive use of force, (2) has made unlawful arrests, (3) has made illegal searches, or (4) has made racial profiling in arrests, stops and frisks, or traffic stops. One common misconception is that failure to provide Miranda warnings is a basis for a Section 1983 claim, but this is not the case, because it is not an unconstitutional violation, as Miranda warnings are not a constitutional right. You must also be aware that, even if you have a perfect case, the government can still raise qualified immunity as an affirmative defense. Qualified immunity protects government officials for their discretionary acts unless the act is so egregious that they should have known or been aware that they were violating the individual’s constitutional rights.
To put it into perspective, let’s say that a police officer, on duty, stops a group of five friends on a street. These five friends are comprised of two Caucasian friends, one Asian friend, one Black friend, and one Hispanic friend. Out of these five friends, the police officer arrests the Hispanic friend, pats him down, and searches him; the police officer has not provided probable cause nor does he have a warrant. Given that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects us from illegal searches and seizures, the police officer possibly violated the Hispanic friend’s constitutional rights. Let’s also say that this officer has previously had trouble in other circumstances with Internal Affairs for targeting Hispanic individuals, as a result, the police officer has shown time and time again to have a bias against Hispanics. In this example, you could possibly have a claim against the police officer’s violations of your constitutional rights under Section 1983.