Civil Rights

Criminal Civil Rights Violations FAQ

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 Criminal Section will ask the court to order restitution to be paid to the victim when it's permitted by law and appropriate to the facts of the case.

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 require that the unlawful acts be based on a discriminatory motivation. These include 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" is a legal term used in official misconduct cases. It means that the law enforcement officer acted while abusing the authority given to him or her in his or her employment as a public official.

Q: How is a criminal civil rights violation handled?

  • A:There are five general stages in bringing potential criminal civil rights violations to prosecution. In sequence, they are:

    • Receiving a complaint
    • Investigation
    • Grand jury
    • Indictment
    • Trial

Q: If there's no violence or threat of violence, whom should I contact?

  • A:If no violence is involved, you can submit a complaint 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: Is there a cost involved in making a civil rights complaint?

  • A:There is NO FEE required to file a complaint.

Q: What do I do when my civil rights have been violated? Can I make a complaint on behalf of someone else?

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

    • Names of the victim( s)
    • Any witnesses
    • 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). The "blue pages" of your local telephone book should have the phone numbers and addresses for the agencies shown below.

    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:

    • Local FBI field office or
    • Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force -- 1-888-428-7581 (weekdays 9 AM - 5 PM EST) -- [available in 100 languages during work hours and English, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin after hours]

    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're 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: What help can I receive if I'm 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 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. In general, victims may be compensated for:

    • Medical and mental health treatment
    • Funerals
    • Lost wages
    • Crime scene clean-up

    These programs have been established in every state and receive federal grants from a fund consisting of fines paid by convicted defendants nationwide.

Q: What's the difference 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:




    Who is charged:

    Accused person

    Usually an organization

    Standard of proof:

    Beyond a reasonable doubt

    Preponderance of evidence

    Fact finder:




    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


    Criminal cases are investigated and prosecuted differently from civil cases. More and stronger evidence is needed to get a criminal conviction than to win a civil suit. If the defendant is acquitted, the Government has no right of 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). A judge usually hears civil cases, but occasionally a jury will decide the case.

    Both criminal and civil cases can be resolved without a trial where both sides and the judge agree; this is done by a plea agreement in a criminal case and by a consent decree in a 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: Will the federal government represent me in a lawsuit against the defendant?

  • A:The United States 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.

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