Discrimination in Public Accommodations: Government Enforcement

When and Where to File a Complaint — Public Accommodations and Facilities

Federal law prohibits privately owned facilities that offer food, lodging, gasoline or entertainment to the public from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. If you think that you have been discriminated against in using such a facility, you may file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, or with the United States attorney in your area. You may also file suit in the U.S. district court.

In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in a wide range of places of public accommodation, including facilities that offer lodging, food, entertainment, sales or rental services, health care and other professional services, or recreation.

There are also state laws that broadly prohibit discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, national origin, and disability in places of public accommodation. To determine whether your state has such a law, you should contact your state or local human rights agency, or your state attorney general’s office.

Public facilities such as courthouses, jails, hospitals, parks, and other facilities owned and operated by state and local government entities cannot discriminate in their services because of race, color, religion, national origin, or disability. If you think a public facility has discriminated against you because of race, color, religion, or national origin, you may file suit in the U.S. district court or file a complaint with the nearest U.S. Attorney’s Office.

People with disabilities cannot be discriminated against or excluded from services, programs, or activities offered by state or local governments. All public transportation systems must be accessible to people with disabilities, regardless of whether the system receives federal financial assistance.

State and local governments must eliminate any eligibility criteria for participation in programs, activities, and services that screen out or tend to screen out persons with disabilities, unless the government can establish that the requirements are necessary for the provision of the service, program, or activity. In addition, public facilities must ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from services, programs, or activities because buildings are inaccessible.

State and local agencies that provide emergency telephone services must provide “direct access” to individuals who rely on telecommunication display devices (TTD’s pr TTY’s) for the deaf, or computer modems for telephone communication. Companies offering telephone services to the general public must offer telephone relay services to individuals who use TTY’s or similar devices.

Intrastate complaints should be filed with that state. Interstate complaints should be filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Discrimination complaints about public facilities (other than Architectural Barriers Act complaints, see below) should be sent to:

  • the federal agency that provides funding to the facility subject to the complaint;
  • the federal agency designated to investigate complaints; or
  • the Department of Justice.

Complaints may always be filed with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which will refer your complaint to the appropriate agency.

Complaints regarding new construction of, or alterations to buildings or facilities funded by the federal government and subject to the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 should be sent to:

Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Office of Compliance and Enforcement
1331 F Street, NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20004-1111
(202) 222-0800
(800) 872-2253
TTY: (202) 272-0082
TTY: (202) 993-2822
Fax: (202) 272-0081

The Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice handles complaints of discrimination based on disability in places of public accommodation, including all hotels, restaurants, retail stores, theaters, health care facilities, convention centers, parks, and places of recreation. To file a complaint of discrimination based on disability, call (800) 514-0301 and send your complaint to:

U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
(202) 307-2227
TTY: (800) 514-0383
Fax: (202) 307-1198

If the Disability Rights Section believes that there is a pattern or practice of discrimination, or the complaint raises an issue of general public importance, it may attempt to negotiate a settlement of the matter, or bring an action in U.S. district court. Any such action would be taken on behalf of the United States. You also have the option of filing your own lawsuit in U.S. district court.

Disability Access: How to File an ADA Title III Complaint

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability in public accommodations. Private entities covered by title III include places of lodging, establishments serving food and drink, places of exhibition or entertainment, places of public gathering, sales or rental establishments, service establishments, stations used for specified public transportation, places of public display or collection, places of recreation, places of education, social service center establishments, and places of exercise or recreation. Title III also covers commercial facilities (such as warehouses, factories, and office buildings), private transportation services, and licensing and testing practices.

If you feel you or another person have been discriminated against by an entity covered by title III, one of your options is to file a complaint with the federal government. You can send a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, at the address below, including the following information:

  • Your full name, address, and telephone number, and the name of the party discriminated against;
  • The name of the business, organization, or institution that you believe has discriminated;
  • A description of the act or acts of discrimination, the date or dates of the discriminatory acts, and the name or names of the individuals who you believe discriminated; and
  • Other information that you believe necessary to support your complaint. Please send copies of relevant documents. Do not send original documents. (Retain them.)

Sign and send the letter to the address below:

U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights – NYAVE
Washington, D.C. 20530

The Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division will consider your complaint and inform you of its action. The office will investigate the complaint and determine whether to begin litigation, but will not necessarily make a determination on each complaint about whether or not there is an ADA violation. If the Disability Rights Section believes there is a pattern or practice of discrimination, or the complaint raises an issue of general public importance, it may attempt to negotiate a settlement of the matter or may bring an action in U.S. District Court. Any such action would be taken on behalf of the Unites States. The Disability Rights Section does not act as an attorney for, or representative of, the complainant.

You also have the option of filing your own case in U.S. District Court.

Depending on the nature of your complaint, other information would also be helpful to the government’s investigation:

    1. Small businesses have limited protection from lawsuits. Except with respect to new construction and alterations, no lawsuit can be filed concerning acts or omissions that occur before —

1) July 26, 1992, by businesses with 25 or fewer employees and gross receipts of $1,000,000 or less.

2) January 26, 1993, by businesses with 10 or fewer employees and gross receipts of $500,000 or less.

  1. The name or names of the individuals or entities who have an ownership and/or managerial interest in each facility or business that is the subject of your complaint, with phone numbers and addresses, including zip codes, if you have them.
  2. Information specifying whether the facility is owned and/or operated by a private entity or a state or local government.
  3. The nature of the activity or service provided by the business.
  4. If you are alleging failure to remove architectural barriers, a description (including as much detail as possible) of the barriers. If possible, please provide pictures, videotapes, diagrams, or other illustrations that accurately set forth the alleged violation.
  5. Any suggestions for remedying the alleged violations of the ADA.
  6. Information about whether you have filed a related complaint with a U.S. Attorneys Office, or any other federal, state, or local agency, or any court, or whether you intend to file such a complaint.

Private Jails in the United States

Private jails, prisons and detention centers have a long history in the U.S., as far back as 1852 when San Quentin was the first for-profit prison in the U.S. (it is currently state-owned). A more recent resurgence in private prisons came in the wake of wide-spread privatization that took place during the 1980s. Prior to the 1980s, some aspects of prison management had been privatized (services), but overall management had still been held by federal and state authorities. Currently there are over 150 private jails, prisons and detention centers in the U.S.

Why Private Jails Became an Attractive Option

In combination with an overall privatization push by President Reagan, prison populations soared during the “war on drugs” and prison overcrowding and rising costs became a contentious political issue. Private business stepped in to offer a solution, and the era of privately run prisons began. Privately run prisons promised increased, business-like efficiency, which would result in cost savings and an overall decrease in the amount that government would have to spend on the prison system while still provided the same service. It was also theorized that privately run prisons would be held more accountable, because they could be fined or fired, unlike traditional prisons (although the counter point is that privately run prisons are not subject to the same constitutional constraints that state-run prisons are).

Major Players in the Private Jail Business

Private prisons are big business, with annual budgets in the billions, and there are several large players in the private prison business such as Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut Securities), and Cornell Companies. Corrections Corporation of America alone owns more than 65 correctional facilities in the U.S. and houses over 100,000 inmates.

The Benefits of Private Jails

While the benefit provided by privately run jails may not match the rhetoric that came with them in the 1980s, there have been benefits associated with turning control of prisons over to private companies. In a study conducted by James Blumstein, director of the Health Policy Center at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, the study found that states that used private prisons could save up to $15 million a year. The U.S. Department of Justice‘s National Institute of Justice found that private prisons had a higher quality of services than traditional prisons.

The Criticisms of Private Jails

One of the most perverse incentives in a privately run prison system is that the more prisoners a company houses, the more it gets paid. This leads to a conflict of interest on the part of privately run prisons where they, in theory, are incentivized to not rehabilitate prisoners. If private prisons worked to reduce the number of repeat offenders, they would be in effect reducing the supply of profit-producing inmates.

While some studies have demonstrated that private prisons may save governments money, other studies have found just the opposite. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found no such cost-savings when it compared public and private prisons. This is in part because simple numbers don’t tell the whole story. For instance, privately run prisons can refuse to accept certain expensive prisoners, and they regularly do. This has the effect of artificially deflating the costs associated with running a private jail.

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.