Court Perspectives: Police Misconduct, Section 1983, and Civil Rights

Back of a police officer's uniform, large letters that read POLICE

Police have broad power to carry out their duties to protect and serve. However, in far too many cases, police officers overstep those powers and violate a person's civil rights - or worse, cause someone's death or serious injury.

Legally, there are limits on what police are allowed to do. The Constitution protects us from excessive force, unreasonable search and seizure, and the right against self-incrimination. There are also laws in place to help hold police accountable for misconduct. However, the application of those laws can be complicated, and things like qualified immunity can stand in the way of justice for victims of police misconduct.

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Misconduct By State Officials

42 U.S.C. Section 1983, originally enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1871, was intended to provide a legal remedy for people who were abused by state governments. In large part, it was meant to undercut discriminatory laws - especially in southern states. It also aimed to address the failure by many government officials to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan for their crimes against black Americans. Today, it is usually referred to as "Section 1983," in reference to where it is codified in the United States Code. It allows someone whose civil rights are violated to sue the government official who caused the harm.

Section 1983 cases often involve excessive force by law enforcement, but the statute itself is much more general:

"Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State...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...shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law..."

This means that if someone acting as a representative of the state violates a person's civil rights, they can be held accountable in court. Those rights include:

In addition to claims of excessive force, Section 1983 is often used to address false arrest, false imprisonment, wrongful death, and malicious prosecution.

Supreme Court Interpretations of Section 1983

The Supreme Court has addressed Section 1983 claims in several cases, most notably Monroe v. Pape (1961) and Monell v. Dept. of Social Services (1977).

Monroe v. Pape

Just before 6:00 a.m. on an October night in 1958, thirteen Chicago police officers broke down the door of James Monroe's apartment. They forced Monroe and his wife to stand naked in their living room while officers ransacked their home. Then, Monroe was taken into custody, held for ten hours, and interrogated about a recent murder. The police had no warrant to search Monroe's apartment and did not allow him to call a lawyer.

When Monroe's Civil Rights Act case reached the Supreme Court, the justices found that although the officers could be held liable for the unreasonable search and seizure, the City of Chicago could not be. This limitation prevented people from suing municipalities under Section 1983 for over a decade until the Court overruled it in Monell v. Dept. of Social Services.

Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York

In the 1970s, the Department of Social Services and the Board of Education for the City of New York required pregnant employees to take unpaid leaves of absence, even if there was no medical reason to do so. A group of female employees sued, arguing their constitutional rights had been violated.

In a rare move, the Supreme Court overruled the part of its decision in Monroe that exempted municipalities from liability under the Civil Rights Act. Relying on cases that established liability for school boards in segregation cases, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote that it was crucial to correct the error.

Abusive Actions By Federal Representatives

Although Section 1983 does not cover abusive actions by federal officials, the Supreme Court established a similar legal claim in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics. These cases became known as "Bivens actions."

Bivens actions generally follow a similar framework as Section 1983 cases. The essential difference is who the claim is brought against. Instead of a city police officer, for example, the defendant might be an agent of the US Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), or the FBI.

What Does It Mean to Act "Under Color of Law?"

This generally means a person is acting within their duties as a state employee. You'll often see the phrase "within the scope of their authority and office" connected to this idea.

For police officers, this applies to their actions on duty. It can also include off-duty activities if the officer invokes either real or implied authority of the police department. For example, if an officer is wearing their uniform or flashes their badge when they are off-duty, their actions can still fall under Section 1983.

What Is Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity is a defense police officers and other state officials can raise in legal actions against them. It is a legal doctrine created by the Supreme Court in 1967 - not a statute.

Under the qualified immunity doctrine, a police officer can be shielded from liability if at the time they acted:

  • They were performing a "discretionary" function
  • They did not violate a clearly-established constitutional or statutory right that a reasonable person in their position would have known

This means if the officer reasonably believed their actions were lawful based on the information available to them at the time, they won't be held liable in a Section 1983 case.

Historically, the qualified immunity doctrine has been applied very broadly. In a 1986 case, the Supreme Court held that it protected "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law."

However, this doctrine has been repeatedly questioned by legal scholars as well as Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. Many believe it gives police the ability to "shoot first and ask questions later."

In recent years, qualified immunity has become a talking point for many seeking justice reform. News of police using excessive force continues to make headlines, sparking protests across the country. But, it appears the issue will be debated for some time still, and might require another examination by the Supreme Court.