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What is Color of Law?

By Darlene Goodman
Updated: May 16, 2024

The color of law is a legal term that refers to acting under the appearance of legal authority. The phrase, "color of", in legal terminology, often means that something has a certain pretense or appearance. When something is done under color of law, it means that the activities are colored by a pretense of legal clout. In most instances, individuals who use this term are referring to its abuse.

In its most basic definition, any official law enforcement activity is deemed to be done under the color of law. Law enforcement officials, for the most part, perform their daily duties in a legal manner. The term takes on a negative connotation when the activity is illegal, or the person acting does not have the authority to act on behalf of law enforcement.

Some officials may abuse their position of authority and perform illegal activities under the pretense of legal clout. This abuse is a punishable offense in many countries. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) typically investigates such abuse cases.

Most countries have laws that limit what activities a law enforcement officer can do. The abuse may be as simple as an off-duty officer acting under the color of law. Also, false arrest, falsification of evidence, and illegal search and seizure are all abuses of authority. They may also occur if an individual is not allowed due process during his or her arrest or trial.

Often, charges may be filed if an officer can be proven to have willfully used excessive force in discharging his or her duties. They could also be filed in cases where the officer willfully failed to protect an individual from harm. Abuse may be applicable if an officer or other law enforcement representative uses his or her official position in a sexual assault. The offender may coerce compliance from a victim by threatening punishment if he or she does not comply.

This term is used in the United States in the federal Civil Rights Act. The act allows citizens to sue law enforcement officials for infringing on their rights, as allowed by the Constitution and federal law. Many color of law cases occur because law enforcement officials act outside their authority, and interfere with the civil rights of individuals.

On the other hand, some color of law cases are not instigated by law enforcement. If a private citizen acts as though he or she has police authority, that action may be subject to punishment. For example, impersonating a police officer may be considered a color of law abuse.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Nov 25, 2014

@Vincenzo -- There is no problem with an officer breaking up that fight in your scenario. That, however, is not exactly what this article addresses. The term "color of law" comes into play usually when someone does something wrong.

In other words, an off duty cop breaking up a fight is fine. A cop saying he won't charge a criminal in exchange for cash, however, is not. A cop using his authority to break in line at a restaurant wouldn't be OK, either.

By Vincenzo — On Nov 24, 2014

This is not always a negative thing. An off duty cop, for example, might use his apparent authority to break up a fight. If he is off duty, can he do that? That is hard to say, but what is wrong with that officer using his apparent authority to maintain peace and order?

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