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Section 1983 refers to a federal statute, 42 U.S.C. 1983, which provides a civil action for deprivation of rights. This means you can file a lawsuit for money damages when your civil rights are violated by the police, prosecutors, or other state actors.
Here is the text of the statute, in brief: “Every person who, under color of [law] subjects… any citizen of the United States or other person…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…”
You are entitled to sue for damages just as in a personal injury case such as a car accident. This means you can recover for damages such as property damage, medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. Punitive damages may also be available against an individual defendant if the defendant’s conduct is particularly egregious.
Even if you were not physically injured or did not suffer economic damages, you can still recover nominal damages to hold the government accountable for its actions and stop future abuses, and perhaps recover punitive damages as well.
In some cases, you may be required to first exhaust other available remedies at the state or federal level before going to court, such as by filing a complaint with the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, or with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In most instances, this is not required, and you can filed a lawsuit directly in federal court when your rights have been violated.
In most cases, New York State’s statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits will apply to a civil rights claim. This means that in general you have up to three years from the date of the incident to file a lawsuit; if you wait until the deadline is passed, you may be prohibited from obtaining any recovery for your damages. Depending upon the type of conduct involved, it is not always easy to determine when a cause accrues, or when the clock starts ticking on the time you have to file.
This is a technical area of law, but it is also vitally important to your case. Having your civil rights violated is tragic enough without being forever barred from seeking justice because you missed a filing deadline. Contact a New York civil rights attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights and ensure your access to justice.