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Police Civil Liability Under Section 1983: When Do Police Officers Act Under Color of Law?

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 23 Issue: 5 Dated: (1995) Pages: 395-415
M S Vaughn; L F Coomes
Date Published
21 pages
This article identifies the circumstances under which law enforcement officers act under color of law.
When law enforcement personnel are sued in civil court pursuant to Title 42 of the United States Code, Section 1983, before a court can assess whether a police officer violated a plaintiff's federally guaranteed rights, the court must first determine that the officer acted under color of law. Although previous researchers have focused extensively on police civil liability, there is a dearth of research on the color of law issue, an essential element of Section 1983. Using 96 law enforcement cases, this article attempts to fill that void by identifying the circumstances under which law enforcement officers act under color of law. After briefly describing the history of the color of law issue, the article divides the analysis into parts: (1) officers who intimidate citizens from exercising their rights; (2) officers who settle personal disputes with police powers; (3) officers who act pursuant to State statutes or municipal ordinances; (4) officers who perform police functions; (5) officers who identify themselves as law enforcement officials; and (6) officers who act pursuant to departmental customs and policies. The article concludes by dichotomizing the factors courts consider when holding that officers act and do not act under color of law. Table, notes, references, cases cited