Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code (42 U.S.C. § 1983) is a federal statute that allows individuals to sue in court for violations of their constitutional rights by state and local government officials, employees, and agents. The statute reads as follows:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.
Section 1983 provides a remedy for a broad range of constitutional violations, including false arrest and false imprisonment, excessive force and police brutality, malicious prosecution, unequal treatment on the basis of race, sex, religion, or other protected characteristics, violation of the right to due process, unlawful takings of private property, and unconstitutional prison conditions, among many others.
Both individual officials and municipalities may be sued under Section 1983.
To state a claim against a state or local government official (e.g., a police officer), the plaintiff must prove that (1) the official acted under "color of state law" and (2) the official's actions deprived the plaintiff of some right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution.
To prove that the official acted under “color of state law,” the plaintiff must show that the official was performing his job (acting within the scope of his employment) when he violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights (e.g., a police officer walking his beat and falsely arresting someone). The official's actions must be authorized or sanctioned by the state or local government (e.g.,, the police department) for the actions to be covered by Section 1983. The plaintiff also must show that the official's actions deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution. These can be deprivations of any right guaranteed by the Constitution; the most common are violations of rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Although local governments are considered “suable persons” under Section 1983, they can be held liable for the conduct of their officials only if the plaintiff can show that the official acted pursuant to some law, policy, or custom of the municipality. There is no "respondeat superior liability" under Section 1983, meaning that municipalities cannot be held liable simply because they employed the wrongdoer (e.g., the police officer). This means that, even though an individual government employee may be personally liable under Section 1983 for violating a person's rights, the municipality itself will not be liable unless it had a law, policy, or custom that authorized or encouraged the employee to violate the law. As a result, in most civil rights cases brought under Section 1983, only the individual official and not the municipality will be held liable. For example, in most false arrest cases against the NYPD brought under Section 1983, only the individual police officer, not the City of New York, can be held liable (although the city normally defends the officer in the lawsuit and pays any settlement or judgment for the officer).
There are special rules that apply when the defendant is a state official or state agency.
The statute of limitations for asserting a Section 1983 claim in New York is three years. The statute of limitations may be longer or shorter in other states.
For a general overview of Section 1983 claims, see here (from the People's Law Library of Maryland).
For a detailed discussion of Section 1983 history, law, and procedure, see here (from the Federal Judicial Center).
Because the legal rules governing Section 1983 claims are complicated, an individual who believes his or her constitutional rights have been violated should contact a qualified civil rights lawyer immediately.