Who Can File Section 1983 Claims?

When law enforcement officers violate citizens’ civil rights, they can be held accountable through Section 1983 claims. Civil rights are granted to American citizens to ensure their freedom is protected. Civil rights provide citizens with the right to social and political freedom and equity. These rights were put in place to ensure individuals are being treated fairly. These laws protect citizens from discrimination within educational, employment, housing, and public accommodations systems. 

Police officers must adhere to civil rights laws when enforcing laws or making arrests. When individual rights have been ignored by the police, victims should obtain a civil rights lawyer to discuss their legal options and pursue damages. 

What Is a Section 1983 Claim?

Under a Section 1983 lawsuit, victims of misconduct can seek financial compensation for the violation of their constitutional rights. These lawsuits can be filed against those who acted under the “color of law.” Section 1983 does not provide federally granted civil rights, but protects existing ones. The lawsuit can be handled in state or federal court, and often includes monetary damages or a demand to halt misconduct. To receive any monetary damages, qualified immunity must first be circumvented. 

Section 1983 creates liability for violating various federal laws, but does not hold an individual officer directly accountable. Cases under this statute typically include violations of the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and the Social Security Act.

Federal courts acknowledge the denial of rights on several occasions, including when:

  • Police brutality occurs, such as the use of excessive or unreasonable force
  • Police search a home unprovoked and without a warrant
  • Judges/Law Enforcement participate in sexual assault
  • State officials deny benefits to welfare recipients
  • Guards mix ex-gang members with current gang members in the same cell, knowing the potential dangers and risks

What Does the Legal Term “Under Color of Law” Mean?

“Under color of law” is the real or purported use of power provided by law. When an individual acts “under color of law” he or she acts or claims to act within his or her official capacity. Acts committed “under color of law” can include both the actions within an official’s limits of his or her lawful authority and acts that occur outside these limits. This means state officials may be considered to act “under color of law” while abiding by or breaking the law. 

Off-duty officers can still act “under color of law”. This situation applies when an officer has made it seem like he or she is on the job or acting in “an official capacity”. Acting in an official capacity can include showing a police badge, claiming to be a police officer, behaving like a police officer, brandishing a gun, or even acting like an arrest is being made. 

Working for the state does not necessarily mean that an individual is acting “under color of law”. Some individuals are state workers by definition that cannot act “under color of law”. Also, individuals who do not work for the government can still commit actions “under color of law”. These individuals are often found conspiring with government officials to deprive other individuals of their civil rights. 

The Police Code of Silence

It can be hard for victims to prove violations of their civil rights for various reasons. One well-known behavior used to cover up evidence of violations is the police code of silence. This is an implied rule, rather than an expressed one, that exists within many law enforcement agencies around the United States. When a code of silence exists, officers refrain from providing witness testimony regarding the wrongful acts of their peers. This code promotes wrongdoing within law enforcement without the fear of incrimination or punishment, leading officers to feel they do not need to follow rules. Behaviors often condoned by the police code of silence involve aggravated battery, internal affairs, narcotic trafficking, racial prejudice, and sexual assaults.

Officers may be reluctant to go against the blue code of silence out of fear. Many well-intending officers fear forms of punishment or retaliation that may include a lack of backup in dangerous job situations or even the loss of promotional opportunities within their department. 

Who Can Be Held Liable Under Section 1983?

Section 1983 affords citizens the right to pursue lawsuits against government employees and other individuals who were acting “under color of law”. Individuals can sue any state and local government officials who have violated their constitutional rights.

Police officers may be sued under Section 1983 should they be acting “under color of law” and violate the constitutional rights of another individual by acts of engaging in unlawful searches and seizures, using excessive force, or violating an individual’s due process or equal protection rights. Various other government officials may be sued, including elected officials, prison officials, and probation officers. Private individuals can also be sued if they have acted “under color of law” by conspiring with state officials.

Should a constitutional violation involve a custom or policy of a municipality, that responsible municipality can also be sued under a Section 1983 lawsuit. Municipalities can include villages, towns, cities, counties, and any municipal department or program such as a public transit service or school boards. 

Not all states can be sued under Section 1983 claims. States unable to be sued under the claim include California and Texas. 

Section 1983 claims do not typically include federal officials. Federal officials must be acting alongside state or local officials to be sued under Section 1983. Should a federal official impede on another individual’s constitutional rights, he or she may be sued in a Bivens claim. Bivens constitutional claims are very similar to the civil rights claims under Section 1983.

Is There a Statute of Limitations for a Section 1983 Claim?

Any civil action lawsuit needs to be filed within an acceptable timetable known as a statute of limitations. Section 1983 claims do fall under a statute of limitations, however 1983 cases vary in violations and time constraints to file claims within. The amount of time allotted is determined by the class of the constitutional violation(s) committed. Courts will determine which limitations statute to apply based on the statute most similar to the violation being claimed in the lawsuit. 

Civil rights lawsuits brought against offending individuals and institutions usually have a two-year statute of limitations in Illinois. Some violations do have a shorter statute of limitation. Retaining an attorney who can help you file the Section 1983 claim before the correct time frame passes can help avoid filing a claim that will be dismissed due to the statute. 

While some lawsuits may only conclude in an injunctive relief, other claims may be worth monetary compensation. There are multiple damages a victim involved in civil rights lawsuits can claim. The damages claimed will often rely on the expenses the victim incurred because of the violation of his or her rights. 

Injunctive Relief

Injunctive relief is a court order that may require an individual or organization to take specific actions or even forbid them from continuing particular actions. The intent is to restrict or prevent acts that could lead to irreparable harm to another entity or individual. Injunctions are classified according to the effect they have and their level of permanency. 

Mandatory and Prohibitory Injunctions

The two types of injunctions are mandatory injunctions and prohibitory injunctions. Mandatory injunctions require parties to take specific action as a form of amends. Prohibitory injunctions require parties to cease specific actions regarding the claim filed. 

TROs, Preliminary/Temporary, and Permanent Injunctions

Injunctions take three different forms, which are Temporary Restraining Orders (TROs), preliminary/temporary injunctions, and permanent injunctions. Temporary Restraining Orders only last a short period, but they can be restored via court orders. Preliminary/temporary injunctions are established at the beginning of the trial to protect the prosecuting party from the defending party while the trial proceeds. Permanent injunctions are established at the end of the trial and have no set duration.

Monetary Damages

Monetary damages are awarded as a form of judicial remedy as compensation for injury or loss that was wrongfully inflicted upon a claimant by the defendant. This financial payment is a form of release from civil liability. Financial compensation may be recovered for confinement compensation, emotional injuries (such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD), humiliation/reputational harm, lost wages, medical expenses, and pain and suffering. Victims involved in civil rights lawsuits may also have the opportunity to recover any out-of-pocket expenses as a direct result of the violation of their civil rights. These expenses can include attorneys’ fees, legal costs, and punitive damages. 

Filing a Chicago police lawsuit can help victims of civil rights violations pursue compensation for their suffering. Hiring a Chicago civil rights lawyer will help a victim to seek the justice he or she deserves and hold law enforcement accountable for their actions. When attorneys and victims hold police responsible for unlawful behavior, it can help prevent other citizens within the community from undergoing any further harm.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
If You Suffered Injuries:
Get Your FREE Case Evaluation