Since its earliest days, the FBI has helped protect the civil rights of the American people. A dozen of its first 34 special agents, for example, were experts in peonage—the modern-day equivalent of slave labor. The Bureau began battling the KKK as early as 1918, and for years it handled color of law cases involving police brutality. Today, protecting civil rights remains one of its top priorities.
The FBI is the primary federal agency responsible for investigating allegations regarding violations of federal civil rights statutes. These laws are designed to protect the civil rights of all persons—citizens and non-citizens alike—within U.S. territory. Using its full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities, the Bureau today works closely with its partners to prevent and address hate crime, human trafficking, color of law violations, and Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act violations.
The FBI has also established productive and meaningful liaison relationships with state and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, non-governmental organizations, and community and minority groups to improve reporting of civil rights violations, promote the benefits of sharing information and intelligence, and develop proactive strategies for identifying and addressing trends in this field.
Color of Law Violations
U.S. law enforcement officers and other officials like judges, prosecutors, and security guards have been given tremendous power by local, state, and federal government agencies—authority they must have to enforce the law and ensure justice in our country. These powers include the authority to detain and arrest suspects, to search and seize property, to bring criminal charges, to make rulings in court, and to use deadly force in certain situations.
Preventing abuse of this authority, however, is equally necessary to the health of our nation’s democracy. That’s why it’s a federal crime for anyone acting under “color of law” to willfully deprive or conspire to deprive a person of a right protected by the Constitution or U.S. law. “Color of law” simply means the person is using authority given to him or her by a local, state, or federal government agency.
The FBI is the lead federal agency for investigating color of law violations, which include acts carried out by government officials operating both within and beyond the limits of their lawful authority. Off-duty conduct may be covered if the perpetrator asserted his or her official status in some way. Those violations include the following acts:
False arrest and fabrication of evidence: The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right against unreasonable searches or seizures. A law enforcement official using authority provided under the color of law is allowed to stop individuals and, under certain circumstances, to search them and retain their property. It is in the abuse of that discretionary power—such as an unlawful detention or illegal confiscation of property—that a violation of a person’s civil rights may occur.
Fabricating evidence against or falsely arresting an individual also violates the color of law statute, taking away the person’s rights of due process and unreasonable seizure. In the case of deprivation of property, the color of law statute would be violated by unlawfully obtaining or maintaining a person’s property, which oversteps or misapplies the official’s authority.
The Fourteenth Amendment secures the right to due process; the Eighth Amendment prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. During an arrest or detention, these rights can be violated by the use of force amounting to punishment (summary judgment). The person accused of a crime must be allowed the opportunity to have a trial and should not be subjected to punishment without having been afforded the opportunity of the legal process.
Failure to keep from harm: The public counts on its law enforcement officials to protect local communities. If it’s shown that an official willfully failed to keep an individual from harm, that official could be in violation of the color of law statute.
While the FBI does not investigate civil violations, Title 42, U.S.C., Section 14141 makes it unlawful for state or local law enforcement agencies to allow officers to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution or U.S. laws. This law, commonly referred to as the Police Misconduct Statute, gives the Department of Justice authority to seek civil remedies in cases where law enforcement agencies have policies or practices that foster a pattern of misconduct by employees. This action is directed against an agency, not against individual officers. The types of issues which may initiate a pattern and practice investigation include:
- Lack of supervision/monitoring of officers’ actions;
- Lack of justification or reporting by officers on incidents involving the use of force;
- Lack of, or improper training of, officers; and
- Citizen complaint processes that treat complainants as adversaries.