What is a civil rights claim?

As many people know, the laws of our county are usually enforced by the executive branch of government, along with the police and other agencies. However, in 1871 legislators were concerned that some laws, particularly those federal laws which guarantee everyone’s rights under the United States Constitution, were not being enforced on behalf of African Americans and other minority groups. 

In response, Congress passed a law known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871. That law allowed individual citizens to sue government officials who violated their federal rights. Section 1983 of Title 42 of the US Code states: “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….”

A civil rights claim filed pursuant to Section 1983 is the proper avenue into federal court when your constitutional rights have been violated. Section 1983 applies not only to the United States Constitution, but also to all federal laws passed by the Congress.  Although Section 1983 only applies to violations of federal law, any state or local government official who violates those federal laws may also be held liable in court. Importantly, Section 1983 allows persons whose rights have been violated to recover monetary compensation for their injuries. 

A Section 1983 action can be brought only against a person acting “under color of state law.” Although the term “person” originally applied only to human beings, the concept was broadened by the Supreme Court to include cities and local governments whose custom, policy or practice caused the deprivation. 

Although Section 1983 was originally drafted to protect African Americans experiencing violence and discrimination, today lawsuits are brought to address many types of problems:  violations of the right to free speech under the First Amendment, violations of the Taking Clause under the Fifth Amendment, violations of incarcerated persons’ rights under the Eighth Amendment,  and claims of excessive use of force and unlawful seizure, to name just a few.

If your civil rights are violated and you have suffered either personal injuries, you may recover for your medical expenses, your pain and suffering, your attorney fees, and if the conduct is sufficiently outrageous, you may be able to recover punitive damages. However, if the event which gives rise to your claim occurred in Pennsylvania, you must file the complaint at the courthouse within two years of the event or your claim will be barred.

The Mizner Law Firm has filed and successfully resolved numerous civil right claims.  If you or a loved one believes that a government official has violated their civil rights, please contact the Mizner Law Firm at jfm@miznerfirm.com or call 814.454.3889 to learn how we may be able to assist you.