Have your civil rights been violated by the police or other government agent? Have you been the victim of police brutality? Are you struggling with physical and/or emotional injuries as a result? You may have the right to file a lawsuit against the government. Using Section 1983 of the US Code, you can hold the police accountable for their illegal actions. Our San Diego criminal defense attorneys can help you file a successful claim. Call the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC today to schedule your free case evaluation.
What is Section 1983?
Section 1983 of the United States Code dates back to the Civil War. The law, which was passed in 1871 shortly after the war ended, gives you the right to sue the government for violations of your rights. Specifically, Section 1983 states:
“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.”
The primary purpose of the law was to deter race-based discrimination against newly-freed slaves. Lawmakers hoped that allowing citizens to sue police, prison guards, and other government actors for abusive and illegal conduct would help to minimize hate and intolerance. However, Section 1983 was not an immediate success. The law remained widely unused until it was invoked in the 1960s.
Revitalizing Section 1983
In 1971, the Supreme Court agreed to address a case that involved Section 1983. Monroe v. Pape involved a claim by Pape, a Chicago man, against the City of Chicago and 13 police officers. Pape filed a civil lawsuit under Section 1983 of the US Code, alleging that city police officers violated his civil rights.
Specifically, Pape alleged that the officers entered and searched his home without a warrant and ordered his family to stand naked in the living room. After finding nothing in the home, police detained Pape to question him about a local murder case. Pape was denied the right to see a judge, call his family, or contact a lawyer while he was detained. He was ultimately released without being charged with a crime. In the Section 1983 lawsuit, Pape argued that the police officers and city of Chicago should all be held personally responsible for the abusive conduct.
The Supreme Court agreed with Pape. It held that “the purpose of Section 1983 is to provide recourse to individuals in federal courts when state laws are not properly enforced because of intolerance, prejudice, or neglect, and the state fails to properly respect the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” In other words, Pape had the right to sue the police officers for violating his civil rights.
Grounds for a Section 1983 Claim
There are five primary elements of a Section 1983 claim. You may have a valid Section 1983 claim if:
- Your recognizable Constitutional rights have been violated or denied
- By a person
- Acting under color of state law
- Without immunity, and
- You have suffered an injury as a result.
You must prove each of these elements in order to recover monetary and equitable damages from the government.
Violation of Your Rights
Section 1983 provides the right to file a civil lawsuit against the government for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” As a result, Section 1983 does not create any rights. Rather, it places a layer of protection over any rights that already exist under federal and state law.
- A police officer uses an unreasonable amount of force to detain you in violation of the Fourth Amendment
- A detective refuses to acknowledge your request to speak with an attorney after you have been detained in violation of the Fifth Amendment
- Prison guards intentionally prevent an inmate from getting medically-necessary medication in violation of the Eighth Amendment
- A school district official uses racial slurs and derogatory terms to demean you in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment
Section 1983 states that every “person” who violates your rights can be held accountable under the law. Does person mean individual? Is the term more broadly defined? The Supreme Court has explained that “person” can be defined to mean:
- Municipality, or
- Local government agency.
States and state agencies are not considered to be a “person” for the purposes of Section 1983.
Under Color of State Law
Section 1983 applies to actions that are performed under color of state law. This means actions that are in accord with any power “possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.” In other words, it simply means acting with power granted by state law or custom.
In Pape, the Supreme Court helped to clarify a common question about this particular part of the statute. The Court explained that actions that a person’s actions do not have to be sanctioned or legal to be considered “under the color of state law.” All that matters is that the person with power extended by the state to deprive you of your rights.
Suing the government can be incredibly difficult. State employees and officials tend to be protected by what is known as sovereign immunity. This immunity prevents them from being sued for actions that are carried out in the performance of their job duties. Individuals acting under color of state law may also argue that they are protected by qualified immunity if they act in “good faith.”
Section 1983 provides a way to work around these immunity issues. A person acting under color of state law cannot hide behind immunity if there has been a “deliberate interference” with your rights.
Suffered an Injury
Under Section 1983, are entitled to compensatory, punitive, and/or equitable damages for violations of your fundamental rights. These damages are available to compensate you for any physical, emotional, and/or financial injuries you suffer because of the violation of your rights. A Section 1983 claim cannot exist unless you have been injured.
Compensatory Damages: Compensatory damages are paid to compensate you for the abuse you have endured. Examples include compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, disability, and emotional trauma.
Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are simply awarded to punish the person who has violated your rights. These are awarded in addition to any compensatory damages you recover.
Equitable Damages: An equitable remedy is a court order that requires or prevents someone from engaging in specific behavior (e.g., requiring a police department to conduct race sensitivity training).
San Diego Section 1983 Attorneys
Have your rights have been violated by a person acting under the power of state law? You may have the grounds for a Section 1983 claim. Contact the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC to learn about your legal rights. Our San Diego criminal lawyers offer a free consultation for prospective clients, so do not hesitate to call us for help today.