Suing the Police – Section 1983 Lawsuits Explained

By and large, the men and women of the police force hold their duty to serve and protect in high regard, and most have proven themselves worthy of the public’s trust. But when an officer of the law does breach that duty and, in so doing, violate a citizen’s constitutional rights, the law does allow for legal remedy, including injunctions and monetary damages. But make no mistake – you’ll be in for a fight, say civil rights lawyers with Jacksonville’s Spohrer & Dodd.

A federal law known as Section 1983 allows people to sue certain government bodies and officials who work for the government, including police forces and officers. Specifically, it creates what a cause of action that allows you to sue if official behavior has hurt you in a way that deprives you of certain civil rights. Examples might include a police or sheriff’s officer unjustly targeting you because of your race, or using unnecessary force when placing you under arrest.

Of course, filing and winning a Section 1983 complaint does have limitations. To succeed, in such a lawsuit, you generally must show that:

  • The person or persons violating the plaintiff’s rights did so acting “under color of law,” which means they acted using government authority;
  • The government official violated your rights under the Constitution or other certain federal laws;
  • The person who violated your rights knew or should have known that what they were doing was against the law and that their actions were not protected from liability under the qualified immunity doctrine;
  • Your injury was actually caused by the defendant’s action, and not something else or someone else.

Compensation under Section 1983 law also is limited to certain constitutional violations including:

  • First Amendment, which includes violations against your right to free speech, practice of religion, peaceful protest or criticism of government or public officials;
  • Fourth Amendment, which covers police stops, searches and seizures;
  • Fourteenth Amendment – Equal Protection, which safeguards against government action solely on the basis of your race, sex, religion, country of origin or certain other traits;
  • Fourteenth Amendment – Due Process, which focuses on harm caused by the government’s failure to follow its own rules and regulations. For example, highway roadblocks or safety checks involve special procedures and the government’s failure to follow those procedures can result in due process violations;
  • Eighth Amendment, which protects prisoners from excessive bail or fines, and cruel and unusual punishments, including torture.

Clearly, taking on a police force is no easy task. If you believe your rights have been violated by a law enforcement officer, or other government official misusing their authority, it’s critical that you enlist the help of an experienced civil rights attorney.

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