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Section 1983 claims generally

42 U.S.C. section 1983 allows police-misconduct victims to hold wrongdoing officers, their supervisors, and employers accountable.  As one court wrote, “[s]ection 1983 represents a balancing feature in our governmental structure whereby individual citizens are encouraged to police those who are charged with policing us all[;]” a person bringing a section 1983 action “‘acts as a private attorney general who takes on the mantel of the sovereign, guarding for all of us the individual liberties enunciated in the Constitution.”  Wood v. Breier, 54 F.R.D. 7, 10-11 (E.D. Wisc. 1972) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

A brief history of section 1983

Congress passed section 1983 as section 1 of the Ku Klux Klan Act of April 20, 1871, to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and other federal rights in the Reconstruction-era southern states “against those who carry a badge of authority of a State and represent it in some capacity, whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it.”  Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 171-72 (1961).  Section 1983 sought to address the abuses of African-Americans in the post-Civil War south, as famously described by one congressional representative:

While murder is stalking abroad in disguise, while whippings and lynchings and banishments have been visited upon unoffending American citizens, the local administrations have been found inadequate or unwilling to apply the proper corrective. Combinations, darker than the night [which] hides them, conspiracies, wicked as the worst felons could devise, have gone unwhipped of justice. Immunity is given to crime, and the records of the public tribunals are searched in vain for any evidence of effective redress.

Pape, 365 U.S. at 175 (quoting Cong. Globe, 42nd Cong., 1st Sess., App. 166 167). 

Today, “those who carry a badge of authority” too often misuse their authority, disproportionately injuring or killing people of color.  Those injured may bring section 1983 claims in federal court to hold accountable both the individual officers and the public entities that employ them.  

To state a section 1983 claim, a person must show:

  1. that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and
  2. that the conduct deprived the person of a constitutional right.  

Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dept., 90 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1988)

A person includes an individual officer, or a city, county, or a school or transit district, for example.  Courts have interpreted section 1983’s definition of a “person” to exclude a state government, so only state government employees may be sued as private individuals.  

Section 1983’s purposes

The two main purposes of section 1983 are compensation and deterrence. First, the statute remedies the violation of a victim’s constitutional rights by providing him or her with a way to sue the violators for money, called damages.  The violation might be of a federal constitutional right–such as the Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force–or of a state statute.  For example, a California statute requiring jailors to allow an inmate to make phone calls upon booking at the jail–so that they are not held “incommunicado”–creates “a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment[.]”  Carlo v. City of Chino, 105 F.3d 493 (9th Cir. 1997).

Section 1983 does not itself create any rights; rather, it provides a way to address violations of other rights. Courts frequently explain that section 1983 “‘is not itself a source of substantive rights,’ but merely provides ‘a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.'”  Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393 (1989) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979)).

Deterrence is the second main purpose of section 1983.  The possibility of a jury allowing money damages against police officers and their municipal employers should–in theory–deter them from violating people’s constitutional rights in the future.  

In addition to damages, sometimes a police-misconduct victim may get some kind of “injunctive relief,” which may take the form of the court ordering a city to take some action–such as to retrain its police officers, or to make policy changes–to prevent the harm from occurring to someone else.  A settlement agreement may also include something like injunctive relief, where a public entity promises, as a condition of settling the case, to retrain its officers, or to make some other change to prevent future civil-rights violations.

Section 1983 statute of limitations

In general, statutes of limitations exist to ensure that disputes are resolved quickly, before evidence disappears and memories fade.  “Statutes of limitations are not legalistic gimmicks but embody the experience of Anglo–American law that it is sound public policy to set a specific time within which a given legal action may be brought.”  Jones v. Blanas, 393 F.3d 918, 928 (9th Cir. 2004).

California’s statute of limitations for personal-injury actions controls the statute of limitations for section 1983 actions.  Jones, 393 F.3d at 927.  In California, the statute of limitations for personal-injury lawsuits—for assault, battery, and other personal-injury claims—is 2 years (for incidents occurring after January 1, 2003).  Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1; Jackson v. Barnes, 749 F.3d 755, 761 (9th Cir. 2014). 

So, if a person files a lawsuit more than 2 years after the date of the police-misconduct incident, then a court will dismiss the case. Ways exist to suspend or extend a statute of limitations to ensure fairness—such as “equitable tolling”—but they apply only in specific factual circumstances.

Even though the statute of limitations for section 1983 claims generally is two years from the date of the injury, effectively a lawsuit bringing federal claims and California-law claims together will generally be filed well before two years.  Because of the government-code-claim process, the statute of limitations for filing California-law claims may arrive faster than the statute of limitations for section 1983 claims.