We all know that the U.S. Constitution and some federal laws give us certain rights. For example, we have freedom of speech, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and arrests, and the right to access public accommodations.
Sometimes, however, local, state and the federal governments have policies or even laws that violate citizens’ civil rights. Or, government actors like police or regulatory agencies may take actions that deprive citizens of their civil rights.
When that happens, the affected people can file a civil lawsuit to get the policy, law or action overturned. Often, compensation is available for those who have been deprived of their rights by a government action.
These lawsuits are authorized by Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, and civil rights lawsuits brought under this law are often referred to as “Section 1983 claims.”
Governments don’t have to allow civil rights suits
The common law has long held that governments and their agents are immune from lawsuits when they perform their legal duties. This is a doctrine called “sovereign immunity.” Section 1983 and a few other civil rights laws specifically authorize lawsuits against governments and their agents.
That said, sovereign immunity still exists and can interfere with some civil rights claims. There are circumstances where an official or policy has seemingly violated someone’s civil rights but there is no remedy under Section 1983.
However, under the right circumstances Section 1983 can be a powerful tool against local municipalities, states and state actors such as the police, officials and even private parties acting under the color of law.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, there are three main uses for Section 1983:
- Attempts to override state laws that violate the federal Constitution
- Seeking a federal remedy when state remedies are inadequate
- Seeking a federal remedy when state remedies are available in theory but not in reality
Whenever you think of a Section 1983 claim, remember that it is a federal law and attempts to address federal constitutional rights that have been violated by a local or state actor. First, it is necessary to identify a federal civil right that has been violated by someone acting under state or local law. Next, you must show that the person violating it was indeed acting under state or local law. Then, you may be required to show that the person is not entitled to sovereign immunity.
If you believe a state or local actor has violated your federal civil rights, you should talk to an attorney. The Leigh Law Group handles Section 1983 claims and can evaluate your rights and remedies.