What Are Civil Rights?

“Civil rights” are the rights of individuals to receive equal treatment (and to be free from unfair treatment or “discrimination”) in a number of settings — including education, employment, housing, and more — and based on certain legally-protected characteristics.

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Police Misconduct and Civil Rights

Police officers generally have broad powers to carry out their duties. The Constitution and other laws, however, place limits on how far police can go in trying to enforce the law. As the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, in Los Angeles and several recent cases in New York have illustrated, police officers sometimes go too far, violating the rights of citizens. When this happens, the victim of the misconduct may have recourse through federal and state laws. A primary purpose of the nation’s civil rights laws is to protect citizens from abuses by government, including police misconduct. Civil rights laws allow attorney fees and compensatory and punitive damages as incentives for injured parties to enforce their rights.

Overcoming Immunity

Being stopped and questioned by police in connection with a crime is an unsettling experience for most anyone. As long as the officer is performing his job properly, however, there is no violation of a suspect’s rights. In fact, police are immune from suit for the performance of their jobs unless willful, unreasonable conduct is demonstrated. Mere negligence, the failure to exercise due care, is not enough to create liability. Immunity therefore means that in the typical police-suspect interaction, the suspect cannot sue the police. Civil rights remedies come into play for willful police conduct that violates an individual’s constitutional rights.

Civil Rights Laws and Police Misconduct

A statute known as Section 1983 is the primary civil rights law victims of police misconduct rely upon. This law was originally passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was intended to curb oppressive conduct by government and private individuals participating in vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. It is now called Section 1983 because that is where the law has been published, within Title 42, of the United States Code. Section 1983 makes it unlawful for anyone acting under the authority of state law to deprive another person of his or her rights under the Constitution or federal law. The most common claims brought against police officers are false arrest (or false imprisonment), malicious prosecution, and use of excessive or unreasonable force.

False Arrest
The claim that is most often asserted against police is false arrest. Persons bringing this claim assert that police violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. If the officer had probable cause to believe the individual had committed a crime, the arrest is reasonable and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. Police can arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence. (Some states also allow warrantless arrests for misdemeanor domestic assaults not committed in the officer’s presence.) Even if the information the officer relied upon later turns out to be false, the officer is not liable if he believed it was accurate at the time of the arrest. To prevail on a false arrest claim, the victim must show that the arresting officer lacked probable cause, that is, facts sufficient to cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime had been committed.

Malicious Prosecution
A malicious prosecution claim asserts that the officer wrongly deprived the victim of the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty. To win this type of claim, the victim must show four things: 1) the defendant police officer commenced a criminal proceeding; 2) the proceeding ended in the victim’s favor (that is, no conviction); 3) there was no probable cause; and 4) the proceeding was brought with malice toward the victim. As with false arrest, this claim will fail if the officer had probable cause to initiate criminal proceedings.

Excessive Force
Excessive force claims receive the most publicity, perhaps because the results of excessive force seem the most outrageous, involving serious physical injury or death. Whether the officer’s use of force was reasonable depends on the surrounding facts and circumstances. The officer’s intentions or motivations are not controlling. If the amount of force was reasonable, it doesn’t matter that the officer’s intentions were bad. But the reverse is also true: if the officer had good intentions, but used unreasonable force, the excessive force claim will not be dismissed.

Failure to Intervene
Officers have a duty to protect individuals from constitutional violations by fellow officers. Therefore, an officer who witnesses a fellow officer violating an individual’s constitutional rights may be liable to the victim for failing to intervene.

The Qualified Immunity Defense

Defense attorneys representing a police officer for any of these claims will raise a defense of qualified immunity. This defense exists to prevent the fear of legal prosecution from inhibiting a police officer from enforcing the law. The defense will defeat a claim against the officer if the officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional or statutory right. In other words, the specific acts the officer prevented the individual from engaging in must be legally protected, otherwise there is no civil rights violation. In order to win a civil rights claim, an individual bringing a police misconduct claim must prove that the actions of the police exceeded reasonable bounds, infringed the victim’s constitutional rights, and produced some injury or damages to the victim.

Police Misconduct: If You’ve Been Affected

Civil rights claims are an important part of our legal system, providing a balance between the duty of law enforcement to uphold the laws, and the rights of individuals to be free from police misconduct. Yet cases against police officers can be difficult. Officers may be immune from suit, even though an individual feels he or she was mistreated. Claims against police departments can also be expensive to bring because a lot of evidence must be secured, including records, statements of police, statements of witnesses, and various other documentation, to prove the misconduct.

The evidence supporting your claim is the most important element in a police misconduct suit. If you feel you’ve been the victim of police misconduct, contact a Civil Rights Attorney promptly so that valuable evidence does not disappear. Take photographs of any injuries or damage caused by the police, and set aside clothing or other objects that was torn or stained with blood from the incident. Try to get the names and addresses or telephone numbers of anyone who may have witnessed the incident. Also, write down exactly what happened as soon as you can, so that you don’t forget important details.

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.