Liability for Police Lineups

Recent DNA exonerations have revealed a significant problem with eyewitness IDs based on lineups. They’ve also changed the landscape for failure to train officers on reliable lineup procedures, and more …

Previously on

In The Hot Debate on Police Lineups and Defending Your Lineup in Court we looked at:

  • The latest research on police lineup reliability
  • How this science is being used to develop new lineup procedures and
  • How defense attorneys are attacking lineups in court if police don’t use best practices.

(Web links below.)

This article looks at how the current landscape of police lineups may give new legs to “failure to train” litigation under 42 U.S.C 1983.

Section 1983 – the first 100 years. (Web link below to Liability Under Section 1983.)

Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code basically provides that:

A person who, under color of law, deprives another person of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured.

It was originally enacted by Congress in 1871 as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act and was intended to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment by providing a civil remedy to African Americans against KKK abuses. It was also intended to protect all citizens against state sponsored infringement of constitutional rights. The argument for monetary redress was that injunctive relief doesn’t address harm already incurred.

Section 1983 lawsuits were scarce for almost a century. Then, in 1961 the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision Monroe v. Pape, just in time for the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

The Supreme Court expands liability – within limits.

In Monroe, the Court ruled that nine Chicago police officers could be civilly liable under section 1983 for acts done in their official capacity. The case involved a raid on the Monroe family residence -- without a search or arrest warrant -- in connection with a murder investigation. Officers “tossed” the house while requiring Mr. and Mrs. Monroe to stand naked in the living room. Mr. Monroe was taken to the police station and interrogated while being denied any phone call. He was subsequently released without charges.

Civil liability was expanded in 1978 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of the City of New York that government agencies qualified as “persons” under section 1983. Now plaintiffs could sue departments and municipalities could be liable for the actions of officers.

This expansion wasn’t without limits. The Court held that governmental agencies were not liable under a simple respondent superior theory which provides that an employer may, in certain circumstances, be responsible for actions of its employees in the course of their employment. Instead, for a governmental entity to be liable under Section 1983, the deprivation of a constitutional right must have resulted from a “policy or custom” of the government that was the "moving force" behind the violation.

In City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378(1989), the Court ruled that one way to establish a causal link between a department’s policy or custom and the deprivation of a constitutional right by officers is that the department failed to properly train officers in the particular area at issue in the litigation. The Court also imposed limits on this theory of liability, holding:

“The inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for 1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.”

The individual shortcomings of a police officer or even the negligent administration of an "otherwise sound program" are insufficient to establish liability of the governmental entity under Section 1983.

The Harris Court gave two examples of when the need for training would be “so obvious” that failure to provide it might show deliberate indifference.

This content continues onto the next page...
  • Enhance your experience.

    Thank you for your regular readership of and visits to To continue viewing content on this site, please take a few moments to fill out the form below and register on this website.

    Registration is required to help ensure your access to featured content, and to maintain control of access to content that may be sensitive in nature to law enforcement.