Have you had your constitutional rights violated by a police officer, sheriff’s
deputy or correctional facility and suffered injuries as a result?
If a local government employee, such as a sheriff or police officer, violates
someone’s constitutional rights, the employee themselves may be
held liable for their actions. But what about the government? Under traditional
common law principles the employer could also be held liable if those
actions were taken in the course and scope of the employment. The principle
of holding the employer responsible for the acts if its employee is known
as vicarious liability and, more specifically,
superior. This principle
does not apply to lawsuits regarding deprivations of constitutional rights.
The main vehicle for this type of constitutional action is the federal
statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This civil rights statute grants persons
the ability to sue other persons for the deprivation of their constitutional
rights. While local governments are considered “persons” under
the statute, they can only be held responsible for their employees if
the constitutional violation was caused by a policy or custom of the local
There are four ways to policy or custom and hold a local government responsible
for the constitutional violations of their employees.
(1) [T]hrough an express policy, such as a written ordinance or regulation;
(2) through the decisions of a person with final policymaking authority;
(3) through an omission, such as a failure to properly train officers,
that manifest[s] deliberate indifference to the rights of citizens; or
(4) through a practice that is so persistent and widespread as to constitute
a custom or usage with the force of law.
Lytle v. Doyle, 326 F.3d 463, 471 (4th Cir. Va. 2003) (citations and quotation marks omitted).
Outside of the rare instance where there is an express policy that is unconstitutional
on its face which directs public officers to violate the rights of citizens,
proving that a policy or custom was the moving force of a constitutional
violation is extremely difficult. If you or a loved one has had their
constitutional rights violated, be sure to contact an attorney who has
dealt with this issue before. The attorneys at the Halperin Law Center
have such experience and are available for a free case evaluation.