Every individual in the United States has certain rights that cannot be taken away from him or her without due process of law. Civil rights are often considered some of the most basic rights available to individuals, including the right to shelter, employment, and education. These rights are so ingrained in our culture and history that the law has developed certain protections to ensure that these rights cannot be taken away from you, absent unusual circumstances.
Common Civil Rights Violations
Only certain rights are so basic or so cherished to be considered “protected” rights under the law. These rights often directly relate to an individual’s status as a member of a protected class as well. A protected class refers to race, sex, national identity, disability status, and other similar characteristics. Certain civil rights violations happen more frequently than others, and some of the most common violations are detailed below.
Police Brutality or Misconduct
Police forces around the country are put in place to protect the innocent. Unfortunately, in their efforts to carry out this obligation, they occasionally overstep their legal abilities and cause civil rights violations.
Police misconduct can take many forms. Perhaps the most well-known misconduct is police brutality. Although the term is fairly self-explanatory, the definition often used in a legal context is the use of excessive or unnecessary force against or when dealing with civilians. Under this definition, the force was beyond what would normally be necessary to deal with a particular situation.
It can be difficult to determine which situations constitute brutality because the term is somewhat subjective. One person may think a certain amount of force is acceptable while others would completely disagree. The level of acceptable force may also vary depending on where you are located geographically as well. The test of reasonable force is based on what the officer thinks, not the public or the person enduring the force. That means that virtually every situation will involve several opinions about whether the force used was appropriate for the circumstances.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) examines hundreds of suspected civil rights violation cases every year. They focus on larger operations that are considered extreme violations of human rights. The have several subprograms on which they concentrate their efforts:
- Human trafficking
- Hate crimes
- Color of law
- Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act
Under its Color of Law program, the FBI works to combat police, judges, and security guards who may abuse their power against individuals. These individuals often argue that they are acting under the “color of the law,” but they are depriving individuals (or conspiring to deprive individuals) of their civil rights.
The FBI’s Color of Law program focuses on situations that involve:
- Excessive force
- Sexual assault
- False arrest and fabrication of evidence
- Failure to keep individuals from harm
Victims of the above civil rights violations can contact the FBI directly by reaching out to local FBI offices in person, in writing, or via telephone. You can also submit a complaint directly to the Assistant Attorney General.
Unlawful Searches and Seizures
Police or government actors are only permitted to search your person, your vehicle, or your home under certain circumstances. These extra protections are used to prevent tyranny of the government; the United States is built on certain values associated with privacy.
A search occurs whenever the police look through or at your property when you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location (such as your home, a privacy fenced yard, or your vehicle). If, for example, the police could see your open yard from the sidewalk, then you have no reasonable expectation of privacy as to that yard, so the fact that the police looked at your yard is not considered a search.
A search becomes unlawful when the search is unreasonable. An unreasonable search has no probable cause. Probable cause means that the police had reason to believe that they would find evidence that a crime occurred if they searched a person or location. In many situations, the police have to present their rationale for probable cause to a judge to obtain a warrant. However, searches can also take place without a warrant under certain circumstances, including those situations where the police believe that evidence will be compromised or destroyed if they do not act quickly.
Although the bar for probable cause is set fairly low, police still occasionally conduct searches or seize property without any probable cause at all. This is illegal and is a civil rights violation. An attorney can help you in situations that involve illegal searches and seizures.
When entities like the government, employers, landlords, or others discriminate based on certain protected characteristics, they have committed a civil rights violation. Civil rights are premised on the idea that everyone should be treated equally under the law. This applies regardless of your race, creed, religion, nationality, sex, age, or disability.
The main federal law that is used in these types of cases is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This statute protects against discrimination based on color, race, religion, sex, and national origin. Additional federal laws offer more protection for certain classes of people. State and local laws often offer additional protection on top of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Other anti-discrimination laws that protect specific classes of people include:
The Equal Pay Act of 1963: It is illegal to pay women and men different rates for equal work in the same workplace.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act: Women cannot be discriminated against because of pregnancy. This law also extends to discrimination due to childbirth or a mental condition that is related to childbirth, such as postpartum depression.
The Age Discrimination Act of 1990: Those 40 and older cannot be discriminated against due to their age.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act: It is illegal to discriminate against anyone with a disability in both the private and governmental sectors. This law also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who have disabilities, both mental and physical. An accommodation is not considered reasonable if it would impose an undue hardship on the employer or would otherwise inhibit the operation of the business.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008: The newest federal anti-discrimination act makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone based on their genetic information. This includes knowledge regarding diseases, disorders, or conditions of family members. It also includes the results of specific genetic testing as well.
Each of these laws also includes a provision that makes it illegal to retaliate against someone who has filed a discrimination claim, has complained about discrimination, or has participated in a discrimination investigation.
Virtually any negative action taken based on your inclusion in a protected class is considered a civil rights violation. If you have not gotten a promotion or housing because of your race, for example, then you have a civil rights violation claim. Unfortunately, situations like these are relatively common even in this day and age, but protected classes have the ability to assert their rights through both federal and state laws. Sexual harassment also falls under the guise of civil rights violations, and most claims of sexual harassment are related to the workplace.
In many discrimination claims, you must work with an agency before you can file a lawsuit for this claim. Failure to work with the appropriate state or federal agency can completely foreclose your ability to bring a claim for discrimination in some cases. Even if you file a lawsuit for discrimination in “regular” court, the case could be thrown out for failure to use administrative remedies first.
First Amendment Violations
The First Amendment protects rights involving free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. The most commonly infringed right under the First Amendment is the freedom of speech. This type of civil rights violation often arises in the employment context.
In some situations, you can lose your job for speaking your mind, and it is perfectly legal. In other situations, if you exercise your freedom of speech and your employer retaliates, it is a violation of your civil rights.
Violations most often occur in a whistleblowing context. That is, when an employee reports an employer for a violation of federal or state laws, he or she may be exercising his or her freedom of speech rights. Retaliation for this type of conduct is not only a violation of a civil right, but it is also a violation of state and federal whistleblower acts as well.
Getting Help After a Civil Rights Violation
Each type of civil rights violation may have a different process to lodge a complaint. You may have to work through an agency or the court, both of which can be challenging and time-consuming. Using the wrong process can bar your claim in the future as well. For these reasons, it is extremely important that you contact a civil rights attorney as soon as you realize or suspect that your civil rights have been violated. He or she can help you determine whether there has been a true civil rights violation and what your next steps should be to assert your rights. Contact The Brown Firm PLLC for more information.