Violations of one‘s civil rights can be among the greatest harms suffered by an individual. Often the person feels helpless in the face of oppressive and illegal governmental behavior. Though violations of civil rights comes up in many contexts, the most common, and the areas in which Collins & Collins, P.C. focuses involve police misconduct and correctional (jail/prison) abuse and neglect.

There are protections against civil rights abuses under both Federal and New Mexico Laws. The federal claims are most often brought under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbids the government or anyone acting on behalf of the government from denying or negatively impacting your civil rights. New Mexico has its own Civil Rights Act which provides additional protections to its citizens.

Violation of these Civil Rights Acts may be grounds for a lawsuit. These claims will often involve physical injuries and proceed in a manner similar to any other personal injury lawsuit. In fact, there is a fair amount of overlap between the two areas. However, there are a number of requirements and peculiarities of civil rights claims that are not present with the typical personal injury claim.

Governmental Activity Required

When considering one of these lawsuits the first question to ask is: was the person who caused harm acting in a governmental capacity. This does not necessarily mean the individual had to be working directly for the government or that the entity for which the person worked is a governmental entity. The individual and/or entity could have been acting on behalf of or in place the government? The most common of these are private corrections companies and other private contractors to jails and prisons.  Most prominent among these other private contractors and the areaprone to the greatest level of abuse and neglect is the private contracting of medical care.

State Actor

In the civil rights arena, the government and anyone acting on behalf of the government is often referred to as a “state actor.” It may seem obvious, but most government employees are considered state actors, including prison guards, police officers, firefighters and elected officials. In addition, political subdivisions of a state (counties, cities, townships, etc.) are forbidden under Section 1983 from violating your civil rights. Finally, and most confusingly, at times private citizens can be considered state actors in circumstances where they are either acting with the government’s blessing or sometimes even where they only appear to be acting with the government’s blessing.

Required Injuries and Causation

Only certain types of injuries fall under the umbrella of civil rights violations. There are many different ways that a state actor may violate a person’s civil rights. One of the most common is through physical injury or wrongful death.

Some cases are more straightforward than others such as where it is clear that a state actor caused harm. At other times it is less clear as to whether the state actor has caused the harm. Once it is shown that there was governmental action, it must be shown that the harm arose out of the governmental action.

Protections for Governmental Actors

Once it is clear that there was state action and harm arising from wrongful conduct of the state actors, there are many protections in place for governmental actions. The two most common are qualified immunity and shorter statute of limitations.

Qualified immunity means that many governmental actors are protected against lawsuits unless very specific and sometimes significant requirements can be met. The statute of limitations on claims against the government are only 2 years. In addition, in New Mexico, if there are state tort law claims in addition to the civil rights claims, the first deadline for a Notice of Tort Claim runs in only 90 days.

Do Not Delay!

Civil rights lawsuits are very complex. The deadlines are short. They can be fairly difficult, time-consuming and expensive to pursue. As such, if you have suffered injuries, you should contact an attorney experienced in civil rights claims as soon as possible after your civil rights have been violated.