Respecting the rights established by our Constitution is a legal duty required of all government officials. Section 1983, or 42 United States Code §1983, is a federal law passed in 1871 that allows people to file lawsuits against government officials who have violated someone’s civil rights. This law applies when a government actor deprives a person of rights created by the United States Constitution or federal law. It gives victims the right to hold government officials accountable if they use their position to deprive that person of any constitutional right, such as the right to be free from excessive force or the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Persons found liable for civil rights violations pursuant to Section 1983 have included law enforcement officers and state and local government officials. Section 1983 cases are civil cases rather than criminal. Successful cases allow the award of monetary damages for physical injury, property damage, emotional distress, and other losses, including the award of punitive damages and attorney fees. In some cases, courts can issue injunctions or court orders to stop the improper conduct. All Section 1983 cases require proof that the government official was acting under the authority given to them by the government.
Common examples of Section 1983 lawsuits include claims against police officers for using excessive force during an arrest, for unlawful searches, or for racial profiling. Government officials who restrict free speech rights in the workplace or during public meetings can also be liable for civil rights violations under Section 1983.