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Law School Case Brief

Monroe v. Pape - 365 U.S. 167, 81 S. Ct. 473 (1961)


In the context of civil rights actions, misuse of power, possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law, is action taken "under color of" state law. 


Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, derived from the "Ku Klux Act" of April 20, 1871, petitioners African-American family brought an action in a Federal District Court against the City of Chicago and 13 of its police officers for damages for violation of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. They alleged that, acting "under color of the statutes, ordinances, regulations, customs and usages" of Illinois and the City of Chicago but without any warrant for search or arrest, the police officers broke into petitioners' 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 not permitted to call his family or attorney; and that he was subsequently released without criminal charges being preferred against him. The District Court dismissed the complaint as stating no cause of action under § 1983. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed.


Did the lower courts err in dismissing the petitioners’ complaint for failure to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment of the lower courts, in so far as it held that the complaint did not state a cause of action against the defendant police officers, holding that the "under color of" provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 applied to unconstitutional actions taken without state authority as to unconstitutional action authorized by the state. However, the dismissal of the complaint against the City of Chicago was affirmed, concluding that a municipal corporation was not within the ambit of the statute.

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