under color of law | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Procedural Law

Under color of law refers to the misuse of power or authority by a law enforcement officer or other government officials while acting in their official capacity, which results in a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights.

Section 1983 of the United States Code is a federal law that allows individuals to bring lawsuits against government officials, including law enforcement officers, who violate their constitutional rights. To succeed in a Section 1983 lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the government official acted under the color of law and that their actions resulted in a violation of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

In the context of 1983 lawsuits against the police, under color of law requires the plaintiff to show that the police officer was acting in their official capacity when they engaged in the alleged misconduct. This means that the officer was acting under the authority of their badge and not as a private citizen at the time of the incident.

Under color of law can arise in many different contexts, including excessive use of force, false arrest or imprisonment, illegal searches and seizures, and violations of due process. For example, if a police officer uses excessive force during an arrest, they may be acting under color of law and could be subject to a Section 1983 lawsuit.

To prevail in a Section 1983 lawsuit, the plaintiff must also show that the police officer’s actions resulted in a violation of their constitutional rights. This means that the plaintiff must demonstrate that the officer’s conduct was so egregious that it violated a clearly established constitutional right.

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Last Modified: 03/14/2023


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