New York City Law Blog

Your Civil Rights Are Precious

What is color of law?

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  • Law posted:Uncategorized
  • Date:June 27, 2018

When it comes to enforcement of civil rights violations, most of them will be violations made under the phrase “color of state law.” Many New York cases may deal with this concept. The Department of Justice explains that color of law basically means anyone acting on behalf of a government entity, like a cop. When a person is acting under color of state law and causes damages, going beyond his or her authority, is a person who can be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. You can also sue under state law, but the time limits are much, much shorter.

One hears in the news about law enforcement’s abuse of power – treating suspects with excessive force, and in some cases killing them. This is a classic example of color of law. The officers are working as government officials, but some acts they carry out go beyond the scope of their rights as officers. Usually, there is no question of color of state law in a police misconduct case, but there might be in a rare case like a prison guard working for a private prison hired by the state.

The idea is the person acting under color of law is taking away the basic civil rights of the person to whom they are doing the act. In the law enforcement example, the officer would be violating the civil rights of the suspect. Even if someone is convicted of a crime in this country, he or she has certain rights that cannot be infringed upon. When those rights are infringed, it provides a basis for a civil rights lawsuit.

There does not have to be any particular motivation behind the color of law action, such as race or religion. If an official is found guilty of an offense, then he or she may go to prison. Sentences can be as harsh as life in prison or even the death penalty. This information is for education and is not legal advice.

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