Six black children and their parents brought a Section 1983 action in federal district court against the city of Chicago and thirteen of its police officers for damages for violation of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. They alleged that, without warrant, the police officers broke into their home in the early morning, routed them from bed, made them stand naked in the living room, and ransacked every room, emptying drawers and ripping mattress covers; that the father was taken to the police station and detained on "open" charges for ten hours while he was interrogated about a two-day-old murder; that he was not taken before a magistrate, though one was accessible; that he was subsequently released without criminal charges being filed against him.
Were the police officers and the city of Chicago liable under Section 1983 for what was done to the plaintiffs? (Yes)
SUPREME COURT DECISION
Police officers acting illegally and outside their scope of authority may be liable under Section 1983 despite the requirement that the officers must have been acting under color of state law. The statutory words "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory" contained in 42 U.S.C. 1983 do not exclude acts of an official or police officer who can show no authority under state law, custom, or usage to do what he or she did or who even violated the state constitution and laws. The city of Chicago, however, was not held liable, because the Court ruled that Congress did not intend to bring municipal corporations within the ambit of Section 1983 (this ruling was later overturned by the Court).
This case virtually opened the floodgates of the courts to civil rights (or Section 1983) litigation. Prior to this, it was difficult to hold public officials liable under Section 1983 because of the requirement that they must have acted under color of state law. Most civil liabilities, however, stem from the abuse of power or authority by the police, and such actions were considered outside the color of state law. Monell changed all that. Now police officers can be sued under Section 1983 if what they did arose out of a "misuse of power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law." An officer who abuses his or her authority can now be sued under Section 1983 as having acted under color of state law. Under Monell, the term "under color of state law" is not synonymous with "acting within the scope of authority." An officer can act outside the scope of authority, or even illegally, and still be sued under Section 1983 as having acting under color of state law.