Civil rights law can refer to a wide range of claims. The original American idea of civil rights law refers to abuses of governmental power. The first civil rights law in the United States, and likely the first of its kind in the world, passed in the U.S. Congress roughly one year after the Civil War.


When a government official violated your rights, you need an experienced civil rights lawyer. Along with the experience and skills required of every litigator, a civil rights lawyer understands both how to prove the case and how to defeat the defenses specific to government officials.

To make a claim under civil rights law, you must prove three elements. The first is that the individual causing the harm is acting under government authority. The second is that the harm deprived you of a recognized federal right. The third is that the deprivation actually caused an injury.

After the victim proves these elements, the defense can claim governmental immunity and escape liability.


When a police officer uses unreasonable force to make an arrest, the victim’s Fourth Amendment rights are plainly at issue. A public school principal who suspends a student for a political T-shirt may violate the student’s First Amendment rights. In other situations, the federal right may not be as clear.

In City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989), the Supreme Court reviewed the case of Geraldine Harris. Police officers of the Canton Police Department arrested Mrs. Harris based on her public behavior. They placed her in a police wagon. When the wagon arrived at the station, Mrs. Harris was on the floor of the wagon. Immediately, officers asked if she needed medical attention, but she was incoherent. After they brought her inside, Mrs. Harris twice fell to the floor. Eventually, the police officers left Mrs. Harris lying on the floor. No one ever called for medical assistance.

After about an hour, the police finally released Mrs. Harris. Thereafter, her family called an ambulance, which took her to the hospital. When doctors diagnosed her ailments, Mrs. Harris remained in the hospital for one week. Subsequent to her discharge, she continued outpatient treatment for a year.

Mrs. Harris then sued the city under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for its failure to train its officer to provide medical attention. The Supreme Court ruled that, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Mrs. Harris had the right to receive necessary medical attention while in police custody. Furthermore, the city was liable if its failure to train its officers reflected a deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of its inhabitants.


Because the object was to help former slaves from the worst of the Confederacy, the Civil Rights Act only addressed State and local actors. More than a century after the Act became law, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the same standards in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The Court applied the same standards for Constitutional violations by Federal officers.

Today, this is the civil rights law that can provide remedies to the victims of abusive Federal authorities.


The original Civil Rights statute was the result of Southern terrorists. After the Union Army had liberated Americans enslaved in the South, Southern marauders attacked the newly freedmen and destroyed their property. The federal law gave the victims of these attack the right to sue in federal court the responsible parties. At the time, federal law gave immunity to State and local government officials. Therefore, private individuals could not recover damages against public employees or agents.

As a result, victims had no remedy against many of the marauders, who had retained some official position or worked with local sheriffs and deputies. Importantly, the statute provides for proceedings against those acting “under color of State law”. To gain relief from the courts requires proof that a “federal right” was violated.

Today, the statute exists as 42 USC 1983.


On the evening of January 12, 1996, Taurrance Richardson and six of his friends broke into a vacant apartment. Apparently, they were having a party, and a neighbor called the police. Later, when Officers McGriff and Catterton entered the apartment, the rooms were dark and quiet. Richardson hid in a closet. When Catterton quickly opened the closet, McGriff shined his flashlight inside.

McGriff saw what appeared to him to be a man holding a large weapon. Immediately, he shot Richardson. In reality Richardson was holding a tube from a vacuum cleaner. Richardson sued. The case went to the jury, which returned a verdict for the police. Richardson v. McGriff, 361 Md. 437 (2000) was the appeal from the decision.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that, in the split second that he chose to shoot, McGriff was acting reasonably. Therefore, there was no error in the instructions or decision of the jury. The dissent argued that the jury instruction improperly limited the analysis to the moment when McGriff saw Richardson. Because the police made several improper decisions leading to that moment, the correct standard for reviewing McGriff’s conduct is the “totality of the circumstances”.


The case of West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988) provides a basic understanding of the standard for determining whether an individual was acting “under color of State law”.

Quincy West was an inmate at a North Carolina State Prison. While playing volleyball, he tore his left Achilles. Samuel Atkins, M.D. was a private orthopedist. He had a contract with the State to provide orthopedic services to inmates. Doctor Atkins received approximately $52,000.00 annually for his services. After he was injured, West went to Atkins for treatment. According to West, Atkins refused to perform necessary surgery.

Thereafter, West sued Atkins under the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which is now 42 U.S.C. §1983. The question was whether the Doctor was acting “under color of State law”. After reviewing the relevant law, the Supreme Court concluded that the employment was “sufficient to render the defendant a state actor.” The Court declared that a person acts under color of state law when he abuses the position given to him by the State.

Following federal law, Maryland created a common law remedy. In Maryland, a party injured by police can sue if the police conduct violated Article 24 or Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. These articles are similar to the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.


After clearing these hurdles in presenting the claim, the biggest obstacle is to overcome the judge’s ruling on the government agent’s “qualified immunity”. Under this doctrine judges can dismiss cases if they decide that the agent’s conduct was “reasonable”. Although reasonable seems like a fair standard, the reality is that judges widely differ in applying the standard.

On the night of March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker of the Tulia, Texas Police Department followed Israel Leija, Jr., to a drive-in restaurant, with a warrant for his arrest. When Baker informed Leija that he was under arrest, Leija sped off.

Police officers chased Leija for 18 minutes. During the chase, the police deployed three sets of spike strips in order to stop Leija’s flight. Officer Mullenix knew about the spike strips. Instead of following the police protocol and training, the officer were being set up directly beneath the overpass where he was stationed.

Ignoring the order of his superior officer, Mullenix fired six shots at Lejia’s car. Traveling at 85 miles per hour, the car crashed and Lejia died from te resulting injuries.

In Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305 (2015), a majority of the Supreme Court viewed the officer’s conduct as reasonable. Justice Sotomayor dissented. She believed that the law “clearly established” that Mullenix should not have fired the shots.


The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the Eleventh Amendment grants the States full immunity from lawsuits for money damages. On the one hand, this view relies on a wildly inaccurate reading of the Eleventh Amendment. On the other hand, this view ignores the clear effect of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, Maryland statutes waive certain aspects of sovereign immunity.

For claims against local government employees, the claimant must notify the local government of the claim within one year. For claims against State employees, the claimant must file a claim with the government within one year.

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