Police Brutality, Section 1983 & Civil Rights Cases


If you have been the victim of excessive force, false imprisonment, Taser, pepper spray, mistreatment in prison or jail, malicious prosecution or other police or government misconduct, Call Us (407) 408-0494

What is Section 1983?

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (commonly referred to as “Section 1983”), a statute which traces its origins back to Congress’ response to abuses suffered by African-Americans at the hands of state and local government officials in the post-Civil War South. Section 1983 does not expand citizens’ substantive rights, but rather serves as the mechanism under which individuals may bring a private, civil cause of action for violations of their constitutionally protected rights (separate and apart from any rights they have in the criminal context). Section 1983 reads in part:
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 ….
Some of the words are perfectly clear. Others have meanings that you might not expect, based on years of interpretation by judges.
Not every harm you suffer or every violation of your rights is covered by Section 1983. There are two requirements. First, Section 1983 applies to the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” This means that the actions you are suing about must violate your federal rights. Federal rights are those given by the U.S. Constitution, Amendments to the Constitution, and laws passed by the U.S. Congress. They are explained in part 1, below. Second, Section 1983 also says “under color of any statue, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any State or Territory.” Courts have developed a short-hand for this phrase. They call it “under color of state law.” This means that the violation of your rights must have been done by a state or local official.

Who Can I Sue Under Section 1983?

Section 1983 allows you to sue governmental officials such as County Sheriff’s, Sheriff’s Deputies, Prison Guards, Prison Warden, and in some case even the municipalites, counties, or cities that employ these officials. Every case is different, but you must have been a state or local official that violated your constitutional rights, not just a private citizen (although some officials can also be sued in their “individual capacities”).

What is “Under Color of State Law”?

Section 1983 only allows you to sue for actions taken “under color of state law.” This means that your rights must have been violated by a state or local official. This includes people who work for the state, city, county or other local governments. If you are in a state prison, anything done to you by a prison guard, prison doctor, or prison administrator (like the warden) is an action “under color of state law.”

The “under color of state law” requirement does not mean that the action has to have been legal under state law. This is very important, and was decided in a case called Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961). All you need to show is that the person you sue was working for the prison system or some other part of state or city government at the time of the acts you’re suing about.

The decision in Monroe v. Pape that state government officials can be sued under Section 1983 was expanded in a case called Monell v. New York City Dep’t of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). In that case, the Supreme Court allowed for 1983 claims against municipal and city governments.

In a Section 1983 suit, you can sue over a one-time action that violated your rights. For example, you can sue if a guard beats you. You can also sue over a pattern or practice of certain acts, like if guards routinely look away and fail to act when prisoners fight with each other. Finally, you can also sue over an official prison policy. For example, you could sue if the prison has a policy that allows Catholic prisoners to pray together, but doesn’t allow the same thing for Muslim prisoners.

You can’t use Section 1983 to sue federal employees over their actions because they act under color offederal law, not state law. This is OK, because you can use a Bivens action to sue in federal court when a federal official violates your constitutional rights. Bivens actions are explained in Section D of this chapter.

You can’t use Section 1983 to sue a private citizen who acted without any connection to the government or any governmental power. For example, if another prisoner assaults you, you cannot use Section 1983 to sue that prisoner, because he or she does not work for the government. You could, however, use Section 1983 to sue a guard for failing to protect you from the assault.

What Types of 1983 Claims Can I Sue For?

Typically the most common Section 1983 claims are those regarding excessive force, false imprisonment and false arrest which are brought under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures. For all practical purposes, such claims are directly analogous to state law battery claims; the same conduct that satisfies the elements of one will typically satisfy the other.

Other common examples of Section 1983 claims with direct state law counterparts include false arrest and unreasonable searches of one’s person, home or vehicle. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable seizures, and the case law recognizes false arrest and unjustified searches as an actionable constitutional violation. Other causes of action could include Fourteenth Amendment violations, Eight Amendment violations (of prisoners in custody), and malicious prosecution claims for filing of false or fabricated police reports.

Death Cases

Fatal police shootings can give rise to a state law wrongful death action, as well as a Section 1983 excessive force claim. In addition to the benefits mentioned above (fee shifting and extended statute of limitations), advantages to the Section 1983 route are the ability to seek both punitive damages, which are usually unavailable under the Wrongful Death Act, and damages for the abstract value of the life that was lost, which are not available under the the Act.1 That said, there are advantages to bringing both federal and state law claims together, as the latter provides, for example, a clear avenue for relatives to bring a loss of consortium claim.

Equal Protection Claims

Equal Protection claims can be brought where the government treats one class of people differently than another class of people. While most often thought of as discrimination against minorities (such as racial profiling in traffic stops), the courts also recognizes “class of one” claims.2 To allege that type of claim, a plaintiff can show that a powerful governmental actor (e.g., a vindictive mayor) has singled out a victim for irrational differential treatment (e.g., unfair denial of a business license).

Denial of Medical Attention

A constitutional claim can also be stated for “deliberate indifference” to a “serious medical need” for a detainee in custody. The need for medical attention must be genuine and objectively serious, and deliberate indifference cannot be shown absent actual knowledge of a problem on the part of the state actor.3 Courts tend to be serious about enforcing these hurdles, particularly against prisoners.

State Created Danger

Under DeShaney,4 state actors can be liable where the government actually created the danger which befell an individual. As the Seventh Circuit has explained, “liability exists when the state affirmatively places a particular individual in a position of danger the individual would not have otherwise faced.”5 An example of this cause of action would be when a police officer arrests an obviously-intoxicated person late at night and drives them against their will to the town limits, and later the person is hit by a car and critically injured while walking home along a busy, unlit highway. In such a case, the “danger” (having to walk down miles of unlit highway to get home) did not exist until the police officer arrested the individual and placed him in that position, and therefore can be said to be “State created.”

Wrongful Convictions

On the cutting edge, beginning in 2001, the Seventh Circuit recognized what have come to be known as Newsome claims for individuals wrongfully convicted through misconduct on the part of the police.6 Though the contours of this type of claim are still evolving with every new Seventh Circuit opinion, the gist is that criminal defendants have a right under the due process clause to be free from the fabrication of inculpatory evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence by law enforcement officers. One way to consider these claims is to think of them as a cause of action alleging the violation of a criminal defendant’s Bradyrights.7

Until recently, the Seventh Circuit had recognized Section 1983 equivalents to malicious prosecution. In Newsome, however, the Seventh Circuit expressly repudiated such claims. Thus, if one intends to plead a Section 1983 wrongful conviction claim, it must now be stated in terms of substantive due process as described above, and not in terms of traditional malicious prosecution. Plaintiffs obviously remain free, however, to plead both Newsome and state law malicious prosecution claims simultaneously, which is undoubtedly the optimal route.

Monell Claims

Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Monell,8 civil rights plaintiffs can bring suit against municipal entities where their “policies and practices” proximately cause constitutional injuries. By definition, these Monell claims are not based onrespondeat superior; rather, they are brought against the governmental entity for injuries caused directly by the entity itself.

While such claims do not necessarily increase the damages available to the plaintiff, they are nonetheless important for their role in curtailing civil rights abuses. Because almost all successful Section 1983 claims against state actors result in settlements or judgments, Monell allegations permit litigants to address, and therefore correct, civil rights violations that are the result of the governmental entity’s policies and practices. Congress reasoned that where a governmental entity is forced to defend (and therefore face) unconstitutional policies and practices in open court, changes tend to be made.

Monell claims tend to take several forms. First, a City can be liable for an express policy. The classic example is Garner,9 where the City of Memphis had an express policy permitting its officers to fire their guns at persons fleeing from the police regardless of the threat posed by such individuals. Because that policy could mean the death penalty for non-violent individuals who posed no threat to the officers or others, it was declared unconstitutional.10

Additionally, municipalities can also be liable for failure to train their employees. This claim was first elucidated by the Supreme Court in Harris,11 which held that the provision of inadequate training to police officers can constitute a basis for suit against a municipality when it demonstrates the municipality’s deliberate indifference to the rights of individuals its officers come into contact with. Such deliberate indifference is commonly demonstrated in two ways. First, a municipality is deemed to have exhibited deliberate indifference by its failure to train its employees to handle recurring situations that presents an obvious potential for a constitutional violation where such failure to train results in a constitutional violation. Additionally, a plaintiff may succeed on a failure to train when he or she demonstrates that a municipality has failed to provide further training after learning of a pattern of constitutional violations by its officers.

Finally, Monell claims can be stated for a “widespread practice that, although not authorized by written law or express municipal policy, is so permanent and well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.”12 For example, district courts in the Northern District of Illinois have recognized practice claims for the failure to discipline and/or punish police officers for the use of excessive force such that the city itself thereby implicitly encourages said abuses. In other words, municipalities can be sued non-derivatively for their own role in turning a blind eye to abuses. In Robinson,13 for instance, the jury found liability against the City based on the total and complete failure to implement a working internal affairs department to monitor police abuses.14

Section 1983 Defenses: Qualified Immunity

The primary Section 1983 defense is known as “qualified immunity.” Put simply, state actors are only liable for violations of constitutional rights where those rights are “clearly established.”15 Moreover, qualified immunity is designed to be resolved by the Court before trial so that state actors are not forced to unnecessarily undergo the burden and expense of defending themselves unless necessary.

The way to defeat a claim of qualified immunity is to find prior cases where the constitutional right alleged was recognized. For qualified immunity purposes, courts operate under the fiction that police officers and other Section 1983 defendants read the reported case law. If there is a reported decision in your jurisdiction recognizing the right at issue, then defendants will lose. If there is no such decision, then the defense prevails, even if the court finds a violation of constitutional rights in your case. In short, if the defendants were not on sufficient notice via the caselaw that their alleged misconduct was unconstitutional, they are immune from damages. Unlike the usual presumption, therefore, in this context older cases are actually more valuable than newer ones.


Section 1983 litigation offers distinct benefits for both clients and their counsel. Indeed, Lawyers who try to litigate civil rights abuses based solely on state law causes of action are foregoing serious advantages readily at their disposal.

If you have been the victim of excessive force, false imprisonment, Taser, pepper spray, mistreatment in prison or jail, malicious prosecution or other police or government misconduct, Call Us (407) 408-0494



1 For a general discussion of these damage issues, see Mattyasovsky v. West Town Bus Co., 61 Ill. 2d 31, 330 N.E.2d 509 (1975); Magna Trust Co. v. Illinois Cent. R. Co., 313 Ill. App. 3d 375, 392, 728 N.E.2d 797, 811 (5th Dist. 2000)

Olech v. Willowbrook, 160 F.3d 386 (7th Cir. 1998).

3 E.g., Salazar v. City of Chicago, 940 F.2d 233 (7th Cir. 1991).

DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Social Serv., 489 U.S. 189 (1989)

Monfils v. Taylor, 165 F.3d 511 (7th Cir. 1998).

Newsome v. McCabe, 256 F.3d 747, 752 (7th Cir. 2001).

Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978)

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).

10 Garner v. Memphis Police Dept., 8 F.3d 358 (6th Cir. 1993).

11 City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989)

12 McTigue v. Chicago, 60 F.3d 381, 382 (7th Cir. 1995).

13 Robinson v. City of Harvey, 2001 WL 138901, at *7 (N.D.Ill. Feb. 16, 2001)

14 See also Garcia v. City of Chicago, 2003 WL 1845397, at *3-5 (N.D.Ill. April 8, 2003); Kindle v. City of Harvey, 2002 WL 230779, at *4-*5 (N.D.Ill. Feb. 15, 2002).

15 Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201-202 (2000).

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