Government Prosecution of Criminal Civil Rights Violations Q & A

Q. What are the differences between a civil and a criminal civil rights violation?

A. A criminal violation requires the use or threat of force. Other distinctions between criminal and civil cases brought by the government are:

  CRIMINAL CIVIL
Who is charged: Accused person Usually an organization
Standard of proof: Beyond a reasonable doubt Preponderance of evidence
Fact finder: Jury Judge
Victim: Identified individuals Individuals and/or representatives of a group or class
Remedy sought: Prison, fine, restitution, community service Correct policies and practices, relief for individuals
Govt's right to appeal: Very limited Yes

Criminal cases are investigated and prosecuted differently from civil cases. More and stronger evidence is needed to obtain a criminal conviction than to win a civil suit. In a criminal case, the government cannot appeal. A federal criminal conviction also requires a unanimous decision by 12 jurors (or by a judge only if the defendant chooses not to have a jury). Judges usually hear civil cases, but occasionally a jury will decide the case.

Both criminal and civil cases can be resolved without a trial by party agreement and with the concurrence of the judge; this is done by a plea agreement (criminal case) or by a consent decree (civil suit). In criminal cases, judges must use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in determining the defendant's punishment, whereas judges in civil suits may or may not adopt remedies as recommended by the government when it wins.

Q. If there is no violence or threat of violence, whom should I contact?

A. If no violence is involved, complaints should be submitted in writing to the Civil Rights Division, where it will be forwarded to the appropriate Section for review. The Division's mailing address is:

Civil Rights Division U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, D.C. 20530

Q. What do I do when my civil rights have been violated, and can I make a complaint on behalf of someone else? Must it be in writing?

A. Individuals may report possible violations on their own or on behalf of others if they have sufficient first-hand information about the incident. The information provided should include the following:

  • Names of the victim(s), any witnesses, and the perpetrators (if known)
  • A description of the events
  • Whether any physical injuries or physical damage were incurred

Complaints in writing are preferred, but there may be circumstances when a telephone complaint is appropriate (especially if there is an immediate danger).

Hate crimes:

  • Local FBI field office or
  • Local police department

Health care access interference:

  • Local FBI field office [phone threats]
  • Local ATF (Treasury) [bombing or arson]

Involuntary servitude or migrant worker exploitation:

Housing interference:

  • Local FBI field office and/or
  • Local HUD office

Official misconduct:

  • Local FBI field office

Religious interference or property damage:

  • Local FBI field office

If you are unable to locate the appropriate office listed above, please send the complaint in writing directly to the Criminal Section at the following address:

Criminal Section Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, P.O. Box 66018, Washington, D.C. 20035-6018

Q. Is there a cost involved in making a complaint?

A. NO FEE is required to file a complaint.

Q. What help can I receive if I am a victim whose civil rights have been violated?

A. During the course of a federal criminal civil rights investigation, the victim may be eligible to receive compensation (for medical and mental health treatment, funerals, lost wages, and crime scene clean-up) and other assistance provided through various local government and private agencies. Each state has eligibility requirements for receiving compensation, usually requiring that the victim promptly report the incident and cooperate with the police and prosecutors.

Q. Can a victim receive monetary compensation as the result of a criminal case?

A. If a defendant is convicted as the result of a federal criminal civil rights prosecution, the government will ask the court to order restitution to be paid to the victim where it is permitted by law and appropriate to the facts of the case.

Q. Will the federal government represent me in a lawsuit against the defendant?

A. The U.S. government cannot represent a victim in a civil suit arising out of a criminal civil rights violation. Victims may contact a private attorney to pursue a civil action even if there has been a federal prosecution for the same incident.

Q. Do all federal criminal civil rights violations require racial, religious, or ethnic hatred? If not, what does "color of law" mean?

A. Official misconduct and slavery cases (such as police beatings and migrant worker exploitation) do NOT require that the law enforcement officer or exploiter have acted out of hatred for the victim because of the victim's race, national origin, color, or religion. However, there are several laws that do require that the unlawful acts be based upon such a discriminatory motivation including housing and religious interference or acts intended to prevent an individual from enjoying certain federal rights (voting, employment, use of public facilities or access to health care [gender]).

"Color of law", a legal term used in official misconduct cases, means that the law enforcement officer acted while abusing the authority given to him or her by reason of his or her employment as a public official.

Contact a Local Attorney About Your Criminal Civil Rights Claim

If you have experienced a civil rights violation with threats or force of threat, then the offender could be prosecuted criminally. If you have not been threatened, your civil rights may have still been violated. You can file different complaints based on whether there is a criminal or civil violation. A civil rights attorney knows the difference between civil and criminal civil rights violations and can help protect your rights. Find a civil rights attorney in your area today.

Next Steps

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