United States Code Section 1983 & Civil Rights Litigation

An emotionally disturbed man gets his eye shot out by cops.  A traffic violator is mauled by a police dog.  A prisoner is locked naked in an outdoor cage in the middle of winter.

What do these incidents have in common besides police abuse?

Each victim sought redress through the federal civil rights statute known as Section 1983.  Passed in the aftermath of slavery, this law allows people to sue cops and prison guards for constitutional violations like excessive force.

We represent victims of police abuse.  Our California Civil Rights Lawyers have spent their professional lives in all aspects of the justice system.  We can help you tell YOUR side of the story.1

This article is an introduction to Section 1983.  If you have questions after reading it, we invite you to contact our California Civil Rights Lawyers for a consultation.

This article covers:

1. What is Section 1983?
2. When do I have a Section 1983 case?
3. Who can I sue under Section 1983?
4. What are the defenses to a Section 1983 action?
5. What can I win in a 1983 lawsuit?

(Click on a title to proceed directly to that section)

1. What is Section 1983?

United States Code Section 1983 is a law that allows people whose constitutional rights have been violated by government officials the chance to sue those officials in court.

In fact, it's such an important law that entire books have been written about it.  Here is what the law says:

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...2

History of Section 1983

U.S. Code Section 1983 was passed in 1871 after the American Civil War as part of the federal government's effort to rid the nation of violence and discrimination against African-Americans.

Although slavery had been abolished and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth constitutional amendments enacted, groups like the Ku Klux Klan continued to terrorize African-Americans while racist cops and state governments supported the abusers.

Section 1983 was designed to give African-Americans a better chance at justice when officials ran roughshod over their rights.3

Today the law helps protect all different kinds of people by providing a remedy for a wide array of civil rights violations.

Monroe v. Pape

Section 1983 didn't have much impact for nearly a hundred years, when the United States Supreme Court stepped up to the plate in the watershed 1961 case of Monroe v. Pape.4

The case arose from events in Chicago.  Cops broke into the home of an African-American man, Mr. Monroe.  They ransacked his home and mistreated him in front of his family.  Then they carted him off to jail and accused him of murder.

No charges were brought against Monroe but enough was enough.  The Supreme Court agreed that Section 1983 gave Monroe the right to sue the cops for damages.5

Section 1983 does not guarantee you will win your case.  There are hurdles to overcome.  But it gives you an additional chance to have your day in court.

2. When do I have a Section 1983 case?

You might have a U.S. Code Section 1983 case if a "person" acting under color of law deprives you of your constitutional rights.  Here are a few examples:

  • cops unreasonably use a taser on you6
  • cops wantonly search your home and kill your dogs7
  • cops beat you up while they are arresting you8
  • prison guards and medics ignore your needs while you are sick in jail9
  • jail guards put your loved one in a cell with gang members who kill him10

Color of law

Someone acts under color of law when he or she acts with the apparent authority of the state.  Police officers and jail guards act under color of law.

Even if cops technically break the law with their bad behavior, if they look and act like officers with the coercive authority of guns and badges they are generally still included.

Constitutional rights

Section 1983 covers numerous federally created rights ranging from free speech to welfare benefits.11

In the criminal justice area, Section 1983 covers the Fourth Amendment constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure and the Eighth Amendment constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.

Fourth Amendment

The California case of Deorle v. Rutherford involved the Fourth Amendment.  In that case the plaintiff Deorle used Section 1983 to sue the deputy sheriff who shot his eye out with a cloth-cased lead "beanbag" shot during a standoff.  Deorle was emotionally disturbed at the time but basically compliant with the cops.

The Ninth Circuit, an important federal court, looked at all the facts and circumstances of the case and concluded that the deputy violated Deorle's constitutional right against unreasonable seizure by using excessive force.12

You can read more about the Dearle case in our related article Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Cases.  That article also discusses non-Section 1983 causes of action you might have in a police abuse case, such as tort causes of action.

Eighth Amendment

Another California case, Madrid v. Gomez, involved Eighth Amendment violations at Pelican Bay State Prison.  Among numerous alleged incidents of brutality amounting to cruel and unusual punishment at the "super-max" facility were "cagings" and violent cell extractions.13

As a result of the Madrid case and other Section 1983 cases federal courts now oversee major aspects of the California prison system.  You can read more about custodial brutality and indifference in our related articles Prison and Jail Abuse and Prison Medical Neglect.

3. Who can I sue under Section 1983?

This is a complicated area of law, but generally speaking, you might be able to sue any of the following:

  • police officers
  • sheriff's deputies
  • prison guards
  • police chiefs
  • county sheriffs
  • prison wardens
  • a city that employs an offending officer
  • a county that employs an offending officer

United States Code Section 1983 cases often involve multiple defendants.  The prisoners in the Madrid case sued the warden, the chief deputy warden, the chief medical officer and the director of the entire corrections system.

States and judges are immune

Even though cases often have more than one defendant, you can't just sue anyone you feel like.  You cannot sue a state under Section 1983 because of sovereign immunity and because the word "person" in Section 1983 does not include states.14

You also can't sue certain kinds of professionals, like judges, because they have historically been immune from liability for performing their jobs.15

Municipalities are NOT immune

You can sue cities and counties in what is called a Monell claim.  To hold a municipality liable you need to show that your constitutional injury was caused by a policy or custom of the municipality.16

The case of Chew v. Gates involved a Monell claim.  The plaintiff brought suit after he was mauled by a K-9 police dog following a traffic stop.

He argued that the City of Los Angeles was partially responsible for the dog attack because the city adopted or perpetuated the K-9 use of force policy in the first place.17

You can read more about the Chew case in our related article Cop Use of K-9 Police Dogs.

4. What are the defenses to a Section 1983 action?

In addition to the immunities we have already discussed, and defenses such as lack of causation that come up in any civil case, a cop in a Section 1983 case might enjoy something called qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is a presumption that a cop will be immune from liability for good faith performance of his or her discretionary duties.  The plaintiff can overcome this presumption -- and win his or her Section 1983 case -- by showing that the offending officer's conduct was way out of bounds.18

Remember the Deorle case, where the plaintiff lost his eye?

The court, in that case, concluded that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity because Deorle had a clearly established right not to suffer excessive force as he did and no reasonable officer would have subjected him to it in such a way.19

But it's important to remember that not every case comes out like Deorle.

In Blanford v. Sacramento County, for example, a plaintiff who was paralyzed after being shot by cops lost his excessive force Section 1983 case even before it got to the jury.  The plaintiff was wielding a sword when he was shot and the court concluded that the cops acted reasonably under the circumstances.20

5. What can I win in a 1983 lawsuit?

Depending on the case, you might be able to get

  • compensatory damages to reimburse you for expenses like medical bills and lost wages
  • punitive damages to "punish" the wrongdoer
  • equitable relief where a judge orders someone to do something or stop doing something

Damage awards in civil rights cases can be high.  In 2007, a man won over three million dollars for damages he suffered from false arrest and other indignities by Oakland, California police officers.  That award included punitive damages.

The inmates in the Madrid prison case got equitable relief.  The judge ordered prison officials to work with the court to remedy the wide-ranging constitutional violations at Pelican Bay.

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers Can Help.
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If you or a loved one has been abused by police and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation for a Section 1983 lawsuit, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

You might also be interested in our related articles Police Use of Pepper Spray and Racial Profiling.

In Nevada? Learn more in our article on Section 1983 lawsuits in Nevada.

Helpful links:

The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse

Federal Judicial Center - Civil Rights Litigation

United States Justice Department Civil Rights Division

Office of the California Attorney General Civil Rights Section

American Civil Liberties Union

National Police Accountability Project

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Southern Poverty Law Center

Reporting Civil Rights


1Our California Civil Rights Lawyers have local offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, San Diego, San Francisco, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

242 U.S.C. § 1983.

3These excerpts from the legislative debate that took place in 1871 show why federal action was necessary:  "Mr. Lowe of Kansas said:  `While murder is stalking abroad in disguise, while whippings and lynchings and banishment have been visited upon unoffending American citizens, the local administrations have been found inadequate or unwilling to apply the proper corrective.  Combinations, darker than the night that hides them, conspiracies, wicked as the worst of felons could devise, have gone unwhipped of justice.  Immunity is given to crime, and the records of the public tribunals are searched in vain for any evidence of effective redress.  Mr. Beatty of Ohio summarized in the House the case for the bill when he said:  `. . . certain States have denied to persons within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  The proof on this point is voluminous and unquestionable. . . . [M]en were murdered, houses were burned, women were outraged, men were scourged, and officers of the law shot down, and the State made no successful effort to bring the guilty to punishment or afford protection or redress to the outraged and innocent.  The State, from lack of power or inclination, practically denied the equal protection of the law to these persons." See Monroe v. Pape (1961) 365 U.S. 167 at 176.

4Monroe v. Pape, supra, 365 U.S. 167.

5Id at 180 ("It is abundantly clear that one reason [Section 1983] was passed was to afford a federal right in federal courts because, by reason of prejudice, passion, neglect, intolerance or otherwise, state laws might not be enforced and the claims of citizens to the enjoyment of rights, privileges, and immunities guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment might be denied by the state agencies.")

6Bryan v. MacPherson, --- F.3d ---, 2010 WL 2431482 (Case No. 08-55622) ("We thus conclude that the intermediate level of force employed [in the form of a taser] by Officer MacPherson against Bryan was excessive in light of the governmental interest at stake.

7San Jose Charter of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose (9th 2005) 402 F.3d 963 ("We hold that Linderman's instruction to seize `truckloads of personal property, including numerous motorcycles and a piece of concrete, for the sole purpose of proving that the Hells Angels was a gang was an unreasonable execution of the search warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment.. We also hold that the shooting of the dogs at the Vieira and Souza residences was an unreasonable seizure, and an unreasonable execution of the search warrants, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.")

8The world watched in horror the brutal videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Los Angeles cops.

9Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, No. s-90-0520 (Three-Judge Court Opinion and Order 2009), 6 ("The United States Constitution does not require that the state provide its inmates with state-of-the-art medical and mental health care, nor does it require that prison conditions be comfortable.  California must simply provide care consistent with the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities - care sufficient to prevent the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain or death. Tragically, California's inmates have long been denied even that minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences          that have been serious, and often fatal." Internal quotations and citations omitted).

10Cortez v. County of Los Angeles (9th Cir.) 294 F.3d 1186, 1190 ("The circumstances surrounding Avalos' transfer to the gang unit and the reasons why he remained there in the face of danger are unclear.  What is clear, however, is that the actions of the jail officials were guided, or at least governed, by the Sheriff's policy of segregating gang members.  Because this policy was established and implemented by the Sheriff as the jail administrator, he was acting on behalf of the County in placing Avalos in the gang unit of the jail. Therefore, the County is now subject to § 1983 liability for his actions.")

11Sloman v. Tadlock (9th Cir. 1994) 21 F.3d 1462 [political speech]; Maine v. Thiboutot (1980) 448 U.S. 1 [welfare benefits]

12Deorle v. Rutherford (9th Cir. 2001) 272 F.3d 1272, 1285 ("Every police officer should know that it is objectively unreasonable to shoot -- even with lead shot wrapped in a cloth case -- an unarmed man who: has committed no serious offense, is mentally or emotionally disturbed, has been given no warning of the imminent use of such a significant degree of force, poses no risk of flight, and presents no objectively reasonable threat to the safety of the officer or other individuals.  Here, all those factors were present.  Deorle had complied with the police officers' instructions, had discarded his potential weapons whenever asked to do so, and had not assaulted anyone; in addition, a team of negotiators essential to resolving such situations was en route.") For a review of recent Supreme Court case law on Section 1983 in the Fourth Amendment contexts of excessive force, car stops, car searches and home searches, see Erwin Chemerinsky and Karen Blum, Fourth Amendment Stops, Arrests and Searches in the Context of Qualified Immunity, 25 Touro L. Rev. 781 (2009).

13Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146 (N.D.Cal. 1995)  This is an example of a caging:  "Another use of force at Pelican Bay that is punitive in character is the confinement of naked or partially dressed inmates in outdoor holding cages during inclement weather.  These cages, apparently the size of a telephone booth.are positioned at various locations around the prison.  Inmates confined in the cages are exposed to the elements as well as public view.  [A] former educational program supervisor at Pelican Bay gave a frank and credible account of one such incident.  She testified that one day in late January or early February, she was walking from her office.It was very cold (she was wearing gloves and a heavy jacket), and it was pouring rain.  She observed two African-American inmates being held naked in two cages.  When she passed by again one hour later, one inmate was still there."  Id at 1171.  About this practice of caging the court wrote:  "Leaving inmates in outdoor cages for any significant period - as if animals in a zoo - offends even the most elementary notions of common decency and dignity.  It also fails to serve any legitimate penological purpose in any kind of weather, much less cold and rainy weather.  The fact that it occurred at all exhibits a callous and malicious intent to inflict gratuitous humiliation and punishment."  Id at 1172.

14In a twist, however, it is possible to sue a state officer in his or her official capacity to make them do something or stop doing something but not for money damages.  The state official can be sued for damages in his or her individual capacity.  See Will v. Michigan Department of State Police (1989) 491 U.S. 58, 71 ("We hold that neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are `persons under § 1983." But see footnote 10:  "Of course, a state official in his or her official capacity, when sued for injunctive relief, would be a person under §1983 because official-capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as actions against the State." Citations and internal quotations omitted)  See also law review comment by Nick Daum, Section 1983, Statutes, and Sovereign Immunity, 112 Yale L.J. 353 (2002).  An area where there is controversy involves sheriffs.  In the case of McMillan v. Monroe County (1997) 520 U.S. 781, the Supreme Court concluded that in a given case a sheriff might be a policymaker of the state and not the county, thus erecting a barrier to suit because of state immunity and giving a county defendant a defense.  The case involved a reversal of a death sentence based on withholding of exculpatory material.  The California cases have come out in different ways and seem to turn in part on whether the case is litigated in state or federal court.  See Streit v. County of Los Angeles, supra, 236 F.3d 552 [sheriff considered county policymaker for purposes of prisoner release review in over-detention context]; Cortez v. County of Los Angeles, supra, 294 F.3d 1186 [sheriff's inmate safekeeping job is attributable to county and not state]; Brewster v. Shasta County (9th Cir. 2001) 275 F.3d 803 [sheriff's department works for county while investigating crime].  But see Venegas v. County of Los Angeles, 32 Cal.4th 820 (2004) [sheriff's deputies act for state when performing law enforcement activities]  See generally Karen Blum, Support Your Local Sheriff:  Suing Sheriffs Under § 1983, 34 Stetson Law Review 623 (2005).

15Pierson v. Ray (1967) 386 U.S. 547, 554 ("It is a judge's duty to decide all cases within his jurisdiction that are brought before him, including controversial cases that arouse the most intense feelings in the litigants.  His errors may be corrected on appeal, but he should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation charging malice or corruption.  Imposing such a burden on judges would contribute not to principled and fearless decisionmaking, but to intimidation.  We do not believe that this settled principle of law was abolished by § 1983..The legislative record gives no clear indication that Congress meant to abolish wholesale all common law immunities.")

16Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978) 436 U.S. 658, 690 ("Local governing bodies, therefore, can be sued directly under § 1983 for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief where, as here, the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers.  Moreover, although the touchstone of the § 1983 action against a government body is an allegation that official policy is responsible for a deprivation of rights protected by the Constitution, local governments, like every other § 1983 `person, by the very terms of the statute, may be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental `custom even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decisionmaking channels..On the other hand, the language of § 1983, read against the background of the same legislative history, compels the conclusion that Congress did not intend municipalities to be held liable unless action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort.  In particular, we conclude that a municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor -- or, in other words, a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory.")  See also Karen Blum, Making Out the Monell Claim Under Section 1983, 25 Touro L. Rev. 829 (2009) [discussing four Monell variations: official policy; informal custom or policy; failure to train or supervise; particular decision of final policymaker]

17Chew v. Gates (9th Cir. 1994) 27 F.3d 1432, 1439  ("In order to succeed on his Section 1983 claim against the city, Chew must demonstrate first that his seizure by [the dog] was unconstitutional and second that the city was responsible for that constitutional wrong.Chew advances two distinct theories of Monell liability.  First, he contends that Officer Bunch violated his Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to excessive force by unreasonably releasing [the dog] and that Bunch's action was caused by a city policy, custom or usage.  Second, he argues that, regardless of the reasonableness of Officer Bunch's action in releasing the dog (given the alternatives then available to him), the city's policy of training police dogs.to apprehend unarmed and non-resistant suspects by biting, mauling, and seizing them was itself unreasonable and unconstitutional.")

18Pearson v. Callahan (2009) 555 U.S. ____ ("Qualified immunity balances two important interests - the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.  The protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official's error is a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact."  Internal quotations and citations omitted)

19Deorle v. Rutherford, supra, 272 F.3d 1272.

20Blanford v. Sacramento County (9th Cir. 2005) 406 F.3d 1110, 1112 ("There is no doubt that the facts of this case are tragic and that the case is a difficult one.  Nevertheless, because Deputies Anderson and Hengel did not exceed constitutional limits on the use of deadly force when they shot Blanford and because, even if their actions did violate Blanford's constitutional rights, a reasonable law enforcement officer in their position at the time would not have known that shooting Blanford was a violation of clearly established law, the deputies are entitled to qualified immunity.")  Judge Noonan dissented and came out strongly for the plaintiff:  "Matthew Blanford, a twenty-year-old college student, was shot and rendered a paraplegic by the police of Sacramento County.  The shooting occurred in broad daylight at Matthew Blanford's residence where he lived with his parents.  His crime had been bizarre behavior -- he was on medication for bipolar disorder.  At the time that he was shot, he was not threatening the police or any other known person, and he was not attempting to escape.  Under these circumstances, the important governmental interest served by sparing the two shooters a jury trial is in the interest of protecting impatient officers for conduct for which the County of Sacramento awarded a citation." Id at 1119




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