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How a Constitutional Rights Violation Case Works

Elements for Establishing a Claim

United States law allows an individual who believes that his or her constitutional rights have been violated to bring a civil action against the government to recover the damages sustained as a result of that violation. Specifically, 42 USC §1983 “provides a cause of action for the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws by any person acting under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory.”  Gomez v Toledo, 446 US 635, 638 (1980)(internal quotations omitted).

Constitutional Violation Claims

In Gomez, the United States Supreme Court determined that only two elements must be pled to properly assert a cause of action under 42 USC §1983. First, the Plaintiff must specifically identify the constitutional right of which he or she was deprived. Id. at 640. Second, the Plaintiff must assert that “the person who deprived him of that federal right acted under color of state or territorial law.” Id.

In other words, the individual who deprived the Plaintiff of the right must have been acting for or on behalf of a governmental entity at the time the right was denied. However, an agent of the government who is abusing his position or the power conferred upon him is still acting under the “color of law” and is thus subject to §1983 actions. Monroe v Pape, 365 US 167, 172 (1960).  There is no constitutional violation if the individual who denied the Plaintiff’s right as a private citizen unless that individual was working in conjunction with a governmental entity.

Section 1983 as a Gateway

It is important to note that “section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights but merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Albright v Oliver, 510 US 266, 271 (1994). Thus, §1983 is merely the channel through which a Plaintiff argues a violation of a constitutional right. The particular amendment which the Plaintiff claims was violated remains the source of the right, and any claim must assert a factual basis particular to that amendment. Id at 273.

Procedurally, §1983 is a stand-alone action which does not require the exhaustion of all state claims before it may be brought. In this regard, the Supreme Court has stated that “the federal remedy is supplementary to the state remedy, and the latter need not be first sought and refused before the federal one is invoked.” Monroe, supra, at 183.

However, despite this holding, there is a significant body of both state and federal case law creating abstention doctrines, which require a Plaintiff to pursue state-based claims prior to filing a §1983 action in certain situations. For example, a Defendant in a criminal proceeding who has an illegal seizure defense available to him may be required to raise that defense in the state action before being allowed to proceed with his own independent §1983 claim. This case law is fact and jurisdiction-specific and should always be considered prior to filing any claim.

Types of Section 1983 Claims

Because 42 USC §1983 is merely a gateway, the potential for the types of claims brought under it vary widely. The statute is often used to assert claims of police misconduct, including violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on illegal search and seizure. Other applications include violations of the First Amendment, and the Due Process and Equal Protection Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Historically, the act has played a major role in the American Civil Rights movement. The earliest incantations of the law, which were passed in 1871, helped authorities to legally enforce certain newly enacted laws passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, including the rights of minorities to vote in political elections. Subsequently, the law was invoked frequently during the civil rights protests of the 1960s and continues to serve as a crucial aid in the enforcement of civil rights for all Americans.