Have Your Civil Rights Been Violated?

From race discrimination to sexual harassment and fair housing rights violations, if you believe you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, you most likely have questions about your situation and your options. Following is an overview of initial questions to ask and steps to take if you believe that your civil rights have been violated.

(Note: In any potential legal situation involving civil rights, you should speak with an experienced Civil Rights Attorney at the outset. Legal issues involving civil rights can be very complicated, and can be very difficult to resolve without proper expertise.)

Was a “Protected Right” Violated?

The first question you should ask is whether a “protected right” has been violated. You may feel that your rights have been violated, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that your civil rights were violated. Only certain rights are protected under civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. Some apparent “rights violations” are in fact perfectly legal, and cannot form the basis for a civil rights case. The examples below point out the difference between lawful discrimination and an unlawful civil rights violation, in the area of housing rights.

Example 1: Applicant 1, an owner of two dogs, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 1 is a dog owner, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to her, because he does not want dogs in his building. Here, Landlord has not committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 1 based solely on her status as a pet owner. Landlord is free to reject apartment applicants who own pets.

Example 2: Applicant 2, an African-American man, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 2 is an African-American, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to him, because he prefers to have Caucasian tenants in his building. Here, Landlord has committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 2 based solely on his race. Under federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, Landlord may not reject apartment applicants because of their race.

If a Protected Right Was Violated: Your Options

If you believe that a protected right was violated, you likely have a number of options available to you — including resolving the matter through informal negotiations, filing a claim with the government, and filing a private lawsuit in civil court.

Informal Negotiations

As with most legal disputes, your civil rights matter can be resolved without your having to file papers in court, or face the prospect of a lengthy legal battle. For example, a potential employment discrimination matter can be resolved by both sides (typically through the employer and employee and their respective attorneys) sitting down and drafting an agreement in which the employer agrees to pay the employee a certain amount as severance, and the employee agrees to give up any right to sue over the matter.

Filing a Claim with the Government

For most cases involving civil rights violations, one of your options is to file a complaint with the government at the federal or state level, and allow a government agency to take steps to enforce your civil rights. Filing a complaint will usually trigger an investigation into your claims by the agency, and the government may take further action on your behalf. Whether your complaint is handled at the federal or state level will depend on the facts of your case and the claims involved (what laws were allegedly violated, etc.). What matters most is that your complaint gets filed; after that, the agencies will decide where and how your case will be handled. In most cases, neither the offender nor the victim need be affiliated with the government. It is important to note that, for some types of civil rights cases, a claim must be filed with the government before any private lawsuit may be pursued.

Filing a Private Lawsuit for a Civil Rights Violation

If you believe you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, you most likely have the option of filing a lawsuit against those responsible for any harm suffered as a result.

Once you decide to file a lawsuit for a civil rights violation, one of your first considerations will be where to file: in federal or state court. Depending on the specifics of your case, the choice may be yours, or your options may be dictated by an applicable law. Regardless of where the case is handled (federal or state court), in order to begin the case the person claiming a civil rights violation (the “plaintiff”) files a “complaint” with the court. The complaint sets out certain facts and allegations, in an attempt to show that the opposing party (the “defendant(s)”) is/are responsible for the civil rights violations alleged in the complaint, and for any harm suffered by the plaintiff as a result. Remember that, for some types of civil rights cases, you must file a claim with the appropriate government agency before pursuing any private lawsuit.

Civil Rights Violations: Hiring a Lawyer

As mentioned above, if you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation, the best place to start is to speak with an experienced Civil Rights Attorney. Important decisions related to your situation can be complicated — including whether a “protected right” was violated, which laws apply to the situation, whether you must file a claim with the government, and where you might file a lawsuit. A Civil Rights Attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.

Hate Crime: The Violence of Intolerance

What is Hate Crime?

Hate crime is the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability. The purveyors of hate use explosives, arson, weapons, vandalism, physical violence, and verbal threats of violence to instill fear in their victims, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks and feeling alienated, helpless, suspicious and fearful. Others may become frustrated and angry if they believe the local government and other groups in the community will not protect them. When perpetrators of hate are not prosecuted as criminals and their acts not publicly condemned, their crimes can weaken even those communities with the healthiest race relations.

Of all crimes, hate crimes are most likely to create or exacerbate tensions, which can trigger larger community-wide racial conflict, civil disturbances, and even riots. Hate crimes put cities and towns at-risk of serious social and economic consequences. The immediate costs of racial conflicts and civil disturbances are police, fire, and medical personnel overtime, injury or death, business and residential property loss, and damage to vehicles and equipment. Long-term recovery may be hindered by a decline in property values, which results in lower tax revenues, scarcity of funds for rebuilding, and increased insurance rates.

Victims of Hate Crime

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in “Hate Crimes Reported in NIBRS, 1997-1999,”:

  • Racially motivated hate crimes most frequently target blacks.
  • 6 in 10 racially biased incidents targeted blacks, and 3 in 10 people targeted whites.
  • Hispanics of all races were targeted in 6.7 percent of incidents and Asians in 3 percent.
  • Most hate crime victims were between 11 and 31.
  • The age of victims of violent hate crimes drops dramatically after age 45.

Perpetrators of Hate Crime

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in “Hate Crimes Reported in NIBRS, 1997-1999,”:

  • Thirty-one percent of violent offenders and 46 percent of property offenders were under age 18.
  • Nearly two-thirds of all known perpetrators of hate crimes are teenagers or young adults.
  • Thirty-two percent of hate crimes were committed in a residence, 28 percent in an open space, 19 percent in a retail/commercial establishment or public building, 12 percent at a school or college, and 3 percent at a church, synagogue, or temple.
  • 61 percent of hate crime incidents were motivated by race and another 11 percent by ethnicity.
  • Of incidents motivated by religion, 41 percent targeted Jewish victims.

Some perpetrators commit hate crimes with their peers as a “thrill” or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol; some as a reaction against a perceived threat or to preserve their “turf’; and some out of resentment over the growing economic power of a particular racial or ethnic group engage in scapegoating.

Reporting a Hate Crime

Individuals may report possible hate crimes on their own or on behalf of others if they have sufficient first-hand information about the incident. The information provided should include names of the victim(s), any witnesses, and the perpetrators (if known), a description of the events, and whether any physical injuries or physical damage were incurred. Complaints in writing are preferred, but there may be circumstances when a telephone complaint is appropriate (especially if there is an immediate danger). The “blue pages” of your local telephone book should have the phone numbers and addresses for the agencies shown below.

Hate crimes should be reported to:

  • Local FBI field office or
  • Local police department

Civil Rights in Education: Law and History

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools and public colleges and universities.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But implementation of the Court’s decision went slowly, with massive resistance from the states. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the 9 black children who were enrolled in Central High School from attending the school. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school. These students were prevented from attending the school until President Eisenhower made the National Guard part of the federal army and also sent 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to protect these 9 children. In September 1958, Governor Faubus closed all the schools in Little Rock to prevent any more black children from attending white schools. The schools remained closed until August 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them re-opened.

In January 1961, James Meredith, an African-American, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. Officials at the school returned his application. Mr. Meredith took his case to court. On September 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to attend the University of Mississippi. The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, personally blocked Mr. Meredith from registering at the University even after the Supreme Court ruled. Finally, on September 30, 1962, a Sunday, Mr. Meredith was escorted onto the campus by federal marshals and Civil Rights Division lawyers. Stationed on or near the campus to protect him were 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 US Border Patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards. Within an hour, the federal forces were attacked by a mob that would grow to number 2,000 and who fought them with guns, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The marshals had been ordered not to shoot and so used tear gas to try to stop the rioting. The violence continued until President Kennedy sent 16,000 federal troops to the campus. When it was over, 2 people were dead, 28 marshals had been shot, 160 people were injured, and James Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.

Government Prosecution of Criminal Civil Rights Violations Q&A

Q. What are the differences between a civil and a criminal civil rights violation?

A. A criminal violation requires the use or threat of force. Other distinctions between criminal and civil cases brought by the government are:

Who is charged: Accused person Usually an organization
Standard of proof: Beyond a reasonable doubt Preponderance of evidence
Fact finder: Jury Judge
Victim: Identified individuals Individuals and/or representatives of a group or class
Remedy sought: Prison, fine, restitution, community service Correct policies and practices, relief for individuals
Govt’s right to appeal: Very limited Yes

Criminal cases are investigated and prosecuted differently from civil cases. More and stronger evidence is needed to obtain a criminal conviction than to win a civil suit. Should the defendant be acquitted, the government has no right of appeal. A federal criminal conviction also requires a unanimous decision by 12 jurors (or by a judge only if the defendant chooses not to have a jury). Civil cases are usually heard by a judge, but occasionally a jury will decide the case. Both criminal and civil cases can be resolved without a trial where both sides agree and with the concurrence of the judge; this is done by a plea agreement in a criminal case and by a consent decree in a civil suit. In criminal cases, judges must use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in determining the defendant’s punishment, whereas judges in civil suits may or may not adopt remedies as recommended by the government when it wins.

Q. If there is no violence or threat of violence, whom should I contact?

A. If no violence is involved, complaints should be submitted in writing to the Civil Rights Division, where it will be forwarded to the appropriate Section for review. The Division’s mailing address is:

Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20530

Q. What do I do when my civil rights have been violated, and can I make a complaint on behalf of someone else? Must it be in writing?

A. Individuals may report possible violations on their own or on behalf of others if they have sufficient first-hand information about the incident. The information provided should include names of the victim(s), any witnesses, and the perpetrators (if known), a description of the events, and whether any physical injuries or physical damage were incurred. Complaints in writing are preferred, but there may be circumstances when a telephone complaint is appropriate (especially if there is an immediate danger). The “blue pages” of your local telephone book should have the phone numbers and addresses for the agencies shown below.

Hate crimes:

  • Local FBI field office or
  • Local police department

Health care access interference:

  • Local FBI field office [phone threats]
  • Local ATF (Treasury) [bombing or arson]

Involuntary servitude or migrant worker exploitation:

  • Local FBI field office or
  • Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force — 1-888-428-7581 (weekdays 9 AM – 5 PM EST) — [available in 100 languages during work hours and English, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin after hours]

Housing interference:

  • Local FBI field office and/or
  • Local HUD office

Official misconduct:

  • Local FBI field office

Religious interference or property damage:

  • Local FBI field office

If you are unable to locate the appropriate office listed above, please send the complaint in writing directly to the Criminal Section at the following address:

Criminal Section
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
P.O. Box 66018
Washington, D.C. 20035-6018

Q. Is there a cost involved in making a complaint?

A. There is NO FEE required to file a complaint.

Q. What help can I receive if I am a victim whose civil rights have been violated?

A. During the course of a federal criminal civil rights investigation, the victim may be eligible to receive compensation and other assistance provided through various local government and private agencies. Each state has eligibility requirements for receiving compensation, usually requiring that the victim promptly report the incident and cooperate with the police and prosecutors. In general, victims may be compensated for medical and mental health treatment, funerals, lost wages, and crime scene clean-up.

These programs have been established in every state and receive federal grants from a fund consisting of fines paid by convicted defendants nationwide.

Q. Can a victim receive monetary compensation as the result of a criminal case?

A. If a defendant is convicted as the result of a federal criminal civil rights prosecution, the government will ask the court to order restitution to be paid to the victim where it is permitted by law and appropriate to the facts of the case.

Q. Will the federal government represent me in a lawsuit against the defendant?

A. The United States government cannot represent a victim in a civil suit arising out of a criminal civil rights violation. Victims may contact a private attorney to pursue a civil action even if there has been a federal prosecution for the same incident.

Q. Do all federal criminal civil rights violations require racial, religious, or ethnic hatred? If not, what does “color of law” mean?

A. Official misconduct and slavery cases (such as police beatings and migrant worker exploitation) do NOT require that the law enforcement officer or exploiter have acted out of hatred for the victim because of the victim’s race, national origin, color, or religion. However, there are several laws that do require that the unlawful acts be based upon such a discriminatory motivation. These include housing and religious interference or acts intended to prevent an individual from enjoying certain federal rights (voting, employment, use of public facilities or access to health care [gender]).

“Color of law” is a legal term used in official misconduct cases. It means that the law enforcement officer acted while abusing the authority given to him or her by reason of his or her employment as a public official.

Criminal Civil Rights Enforcement and Hate Crimes: History and the Law

Federal criminal civil rights laws prohibit certain hate crimes based on race, color or national origin, prohibit police brutality, prohibit church burnings, violence against health care providers, and the transport of persons, particularly women and children, for the purpose of enslavement or forced labor.

In June, 1964, 3 young men were working in Mississippi to help African-Americans obtain their civil rights in voting, education and employment. The 3 young men were named Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. On June 21, 1964, the young men visited a church that had been fire bombed near Philadelphia, Mississippi. After leaving the site of the church bombing, the young men were arrested by members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department for speeding. Later that night, they disappeared.

Within a few days of the disappearance, the FBI began an investigation, and members of the U.S. Department of Justice‘s Civil Rights Division visited Mississippi to learn what facts were available about their disappearance. On August 4, 1964, a paid informant of the FBI revealed the location of the bodies of the 3 young civil rights workers. They had been shot, and James Chaney, an African-American, had been severely beaten. In December, 1964, 19 white men, including the sheriff and his deputy, were arrested on state conspiracy charges, but the charges were later dropped. In 1967, after a federal prosecution for conspiracy to deny the young men’s civil rights, 7 white men were convicted.

A case in March 1991 involved the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, California,. After the police officers who allegedly beat Mr. King were acquitted in a state court trial, terrible riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles in protest. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney then prosecuted the officers under a federal criminal civil rights statute. The officers were convicted of violating Mr. King’s civil rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division also enforces federal criminal civil rights laws that involve “hate crimes.” Hate crimes are crimes committed against individuals or institutions because of their race, ethnic background or religion. Other federal laws prohibit church burnings. In 1996, a string of church arsons, especially in a large number of African-American churches, led President Bill Clinton to form a special task force, known as the National Church Arson Task Force, made up of lawyers from the Civil Rights Division, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This Task Force was assigned to investigate and prosecute these church arsons under the federal criminal civil rights statutes. In their report to the President in June 1997, the Task Force reported convictions of 110 individuals in connection with 77 fires at houses of worship. The President also sought and worked with Congress to improve the law that prohibits church arsons.