Unfortunately, in any society, even a democratic society, officers, agents, and employees of state and federal governments are prone to depriving citizens of their rights. While a “Bivens action” allows citizens to sue federal actors who commit illegal acts that result in the deprivation of rights, a § 1983 action under Title 42 of the U.S. Code allows citizens to sue state government actors in similar circumstances.

This section of the U.S. Code only applies to local state governments. Any lawsuit filed under § 1983 provides an individual the right to sue state government employees and others acting “under color of state law” for civil rights violations. Actions under § 1983 may be brought in state or federal court where plaintiffs may seek monetary damages or pursue injunctive relief, the latter to prevent the action from occurring again in the future.

The United States Constitution and federal law provide civil rights to all Americans. A § 1983 action may not be used to enforce rights guaranteed by state law – only federal rights. It is important to note that § 1983 of Title 42 does not create or provide civil rights but only a procedural mechanism to enforce civil rights that already exist. Thus, an action under §1983 always must include an alleged violation of another federal law. Typically, these include violations of the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, or even the Social Security Act.

The law was passed as a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to protect former slaves who were persecuted in the South after the Civil War. Law enforcement officers often used their authority to deprive former slaves of their civil rights. A lawsuit could be filed in federal court allowing plaintiffs, typically black, to avoid state court where they would have experienced bias and prejudice.

State officers, agents, and employees act under the color of law when they carry out their duties with the apparent authority of the state. Police officers and jail guards act under the color of state law when they act in the scope of their official duties – are on the job.

A Section 1983 claim may be filed against state and local officials such as police officers, police chiefs, sheriff’s deputies, county sheriffs, prison wardens, state or county prison guards, and other public officials. Examples of conduct by state actors that may give rise to a violation and lawsuit under § 1983 include police misconduct where excessive or unreasonable force is used.

John Patrick Dolan is a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law, the highest achievement awarded by the State Bar of California to attorneys in the field of criminal law. The advice, guidance, and representation of experienced criminal defense counsel may be crucial to achieving the best possible result in any criminal matter. John Patrick Dolan has forty years of criminal defense experience. Contact Dolan Law Offices today at 760-775-3739 or 562-824-4007 to discuss your situation or find out more online here.

What Is A § 1983 Action?