Section 1983 of the Reconstruction Civil Rights Act authorizes a variety of lawsuits against state and local government agencies and officials when a person has been deprived of their rights under color of state law. “Under color of state law,” means the violation must have been committed by a state, city, county or local official, and that the person who violated the rights of another was “clothed in their official authority.” The Reconstruction Civil Rights Acts, enacted during the 1860’s and 1870’s, provided the right to bring an action in federal court for violations of federal civil rights by state or local officials. While slavery had been eliminated following the Civil War in 1871, former slaves were still being intimidated and harmed.
While some state governments and police officers were actually a party to these acts in some instances, in other instances they turned a blind eye to others who were acting as terrorizers. Section 1983 seemed to make little impression for nearly a hundred years, until 1961 when police officers burst into the home of an African American man, ransacking his home and being verbally and physically abusive to the man and his family. Although the police claimed Mr. Monroe had murdered another, he was never charged with a crime, and the Supreme Court held Monroe had the right to sue the police department.
Unfortunately, in the 1960’s, although a few favorable decisions were handed down for prisoners who challenged prison abuse, many judges continued to believe the court should allow prison officials to run the prison any way they chose, without interference. Even in clear prison guard brutality cases, the judges remained “hands-off.” Racially united rebellions shook prisons throughout the U.S. during the early 1970’s, including Folsom, San Quentin and Attica, bringing the often terrible conditions of these prisons into the public eye. This began to have positive effects on the way federal courts dealt with prisoners. It seemed prisoners were gaining ground, then in 1996 President Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which is extremely anti-prisoner, limiting the prisoner’s access to the federal court.
While Section 1983 was designed specifically to help African-Americans, any American, regardless of their race, can use the law. In fact, even if you are not a United States citizen, but you were physically present in the United States when the violation of your rights occurred, then you can file a lawsuit under Section 1983. Of course not every harm suffered or violation of rights is covered by Section 1983, only if the actions being challenged are violations of your federal rights, as afforded by the U.S. Constitution, Amendments to that Constitution and Congressional laws.
There is no “state of mind” requirement under Section 1983, however a causal connection must exist between the actions of the defendant and the harm you suffered. In order to hold a local government liable under Section 1983, the causation element requires the harm be the result of action on the part of the governmental entity which implemented or executed a policy or decision; that policy or decision must have been the “moving force” behind the alleged deprivation. Local governments are responsible for training its employees not to violate the rights of citizens, and a failure to train can result in those employees making bad choices and decisions, which the government is then responsible for. While states, as well as state agencies, are afforded Eleventh Amendment immunity in federal court, local governments have no such immunity from damages resulting from constitutional violations.
Under a Section 1983 suit you could sue over a one-time action which violated your rights—such as being beaten by a guard, or deprived of basic necessities. You could also sue over a practice of specific acts, such as prison guards who looked the other way when prisoners were being beaten. Under Section 1983, you could also sue for a specific prison policy which violates civil rights of prisoners. As an example, suppose the prison allows Baptist prisoners to gather together to pray, but does not allow the same thing for Catholics or Muslims. Federal employees cannot be held liable under Section 1983, because rather than acting under color of state law, they act under federal laws.
You cannot sue a private individual who violated your Section 1983 rights, but who had no connection to a governmental entity. In other words, if you are assaulted in prison by another prisoner, you cannot sue the prisoner under Section 1983, however if a guard stood by and watched, you could sue the guard and the prison for failing to properly protect you. The exception to this is that you could potentially use Section 1983 to sue a private citizen like a doctor, but only if he or she mistreated you while employed by prison officials. If you happen to be incarcerated in a private prison, Section 1983 gets much trickier. The Supreme Court is still debating whether private prison guards could be sued under Section 1983 in the same way as state prison guards.
A Section 1983 claim can cover the Fourth and the Eighth Amendments, however not all Section 1983 cases are winnable. Defendants in a Section 1983 claim can use qualified immunity and lack of causation as defenses to the charges. If you believe your Section 1983 rights have been violated, it is important to speak to a knowledgeable Huntsville, Alabama attorney from Martinson & Beason. Our attorneys can ensure your rights are protected if you feel a police officer, guard or jailor violated those rights. Our attorneys will take the time to thoroughly explain your options, and will be the advocate in your corner you deserve. Call Martinson & Beason today for a comprehensive consultation.