If a state actor uses the legal system to deprive you of your constitutional rights you may have a cause of action against them. 42 U.S. Code, Section 1983 [Section 1983] provides a civil cause of action against the person responsible.
At common law, actions against the state and its agents were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Following the landmark Supreme Court case of Chisolm v. Georgia, in which the court permitted the lawsuit of an out-of-state resident against Georgia, Congress passed the 11th Amendment. The Amendment explicitly prohibited lawsuits against states.
However, subsequent Supreme Court cases have established that the 11th Amendment has not totally removed the ability to sue states for their constitutional violations. Section 1983 is critical to the ability to sue states and their agents.
Section 1983. Civil action for deprivation of rights
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.
Although passed in 1871, Section 1983 did not come into use as a tool to prevent abuses by state officials until 1961 in the Supreme Court case of Monroe v. Pape. In Monroe the Supreme Court listed three uses for the statute:
Section 1983 has undergone continuing expansion since this time, permitting suit against municipal entities as well as state actors. State officials found culpable under Section 1983 have included police officers, correctional officers, state and municipal officials, municipal entities, and private parties acting under color of law.
Requirements For Section 1983 Relief
There are many requirements that must be fulfilled before Section 1983 relief can be made available. The claimant must have had federal rights violated by someone acting under color of state law. It can be difficult to establish that a right exists, or that the person infringing that right was acting "under color of law." The Eleventh Amendment continues to provide a limited immunity to some actors for certain acts.
The Supreme Court case Cort v. Ash provided a four-part test for determining whether a claimant has the right to sue under a federal statute:
The test effectively requires both a private right and a private remedy.
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Although Section 1983 authority has expanded dramatically since its introduction, claims of this sort remain procedurally complicated. There are a host of elements that need to be established before a claim can be pursued and without careful preparation your case could be sunk before it even starts. An experienced attorney can help you prepare an effective claim and a free case review is a great way to get started.