Police Misconduct/Prisoner Rights
Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code is the single most important statute that may
be employed to protect private citizens against violations of their rights under the United States
Constitution by police officers, prison guards, and other persons in authority who abuse the
power given them by states and local governments. Section 1983 reads in its entirety as follows:
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, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an
act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be
granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.
For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the
District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.
Section 1983 gives a private party the right to sue for monetary damages or to obtain injunctive
relief when some person acting “under color of law” improperly seeks to curtail the private
party’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,
engages in an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the
United States Constitution, or imposes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth
Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Section 1983 is often the first weapon in the arsenal of citizens who complain of police
misconduct–for example, when local police officers beat up a suspect simply because the suspect
makes a remark that the officer does not like–as well as of prisoners who complain of
mistreatment while incarcerated–for example, when prison authorities fail to protect an inmate
from assault by other inmates, or refuse to provide proper medical treatment to inmates under
their care. While the language of §1983 appears to be simple enough, that appearance is
deceptive. Few federal statutes have been interpreted by the courts as frequently as §1983, and
no lawyer can competently represent a claimant on a §1983 claim without having carefully
reviewed the case law concerning any issues raised by the claim in question.
In the areas of police misconduct and prisoner rights, lawsuits alleging violations of §1983 often
also allege violations of relevant state laws as well as “common law” causes of action for civil
assault, civil battery, wrongful arrest, false detention, and malicious prosecution.