The Color of Law: Definition, Violations & the Deprivation of Rights

Instructor: Janell Blanco
Find out who the color of law applies to and how it protects rights covered in the US Constitution. Get examples of violations and learn about real cases where rights have been deprived under the color of law, then take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Color of Law Defined

In law enforcement, there must be checks and balances to ensure officers are acting in a lawful manner when offenders are in their custody. The color of law is that checks and balances system.

The color of law is defined as any authority using his or her power to willfully deprive a person of his or her rights and privileges protected by the U.S. Constitution. It is designed to protect individuals of their rights. Authority figures including police officers, judges, security guards, mayors, city council members, members of Congress must abide by the color of law. Those who break it are charged with a federal crime.

The color of law helps maintain fairness in the justice system
Scales of justice

Violations of the Color of Law

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, in 2012, there were 380 civil rights cases of the color of law.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits unlawful search and seizure. Under the color of law, law enforcement agents are allowed to stop suspects and search with probable cause, but they cannot stop suspects, search or seize the property under false pretenses. Law enforcement agents, under the color of law, are not allowed to use their authority to:

  • Unlawfully confiscate property
  • Falsely arrest a subject
  • Falsify records
  • Use cruel or unusual punishment to detain an individual
  • Fail to keep a person from harm

Sexual assault can occur in various circumstances. Under the color of law, sexual assaults that occur during traffic stops, while an offender is in custody, or in any circumstance where the authority abuses his or her power is a violation of color of law.

The Deprivation of Rights

Under the color of law, persons with authority are not lawfully permitted to deprive an individual of their rights covered by the U.S. Constitution. According to the FBI, the following are examples of deprivation of rights:

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