Peter H. Schiff, Deputy Solicitor General of New York, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Robert Abrams, Attorney General, O. Peter Sherwood, Solicitor General, and Charles R. Fraser, Assistant Attorney General.
Kenneth Kimerling argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Arthur N. Eisenberg, John A. Powell, Steven Shapiro, Helen Hershkoff, and Joseph M. Brennan.
JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
In Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261 (1985), we held that courts entertaining claims brought under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 should borrow the state statute of limitations for personal injury actions. This case raises the question of what limitations period should apply to a § 1983 action where a State has one or more statutes of limitations for certain enumerated intentional torts, and a residual statute for all other personal injury actions. We hold that the residual or general personal injury statute of limitations applies.
On November 13, 1985, respondent Tom U. U. Okure brought suit in the District Court for the Northern District of New York, seeking damages under § 1983 from petitioners Javan Owens and Daniel G. Lessard, two State University of New York (SUNY) police officers. Okure alleged that, on January 27, 1984, the officers unlawfully arrested him on the SUNY campus in Albany and charged him with disorderly conduct. The complaint stated that Okure was "forcibly transported" to a police detention center, "battered and beaten by [the police officers] and forced to endure great emotional distress, physical harm, and embarrassment." App. 5-6. As a result of the arrest and beating, Okure claimed, he "sustained personal injuries, including broken teeth and a sprained finger, mental anguish, shame, humiliation, legal expenses and the deprivation of his constitutional rights." Id., at 6.
The officers moved to dismiss the complaint, which had been filed 22 months after the alleged incident, as time barred. They contended that § 1983 actions were governed by New York's 1-year statute of limitations covering eight intentional torts: "assault, battery, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, libel, slander, false words causing special damages, [and] a violation of the right of privacy." N. Y. Civ. Prac. Law § 215(3) (McKinney 1972).
The District Court denied the motion to dismiss. 625 F.Supp. 1568 (1986). Borrowing "a narrowly drawn statute which is applicable only to certain intentional torts," id., at 1570, the court stated, was inconsistent with this Court's endorsement of "a simple, broad characterization of all § 1983 claims." Ibid. (citing Wilson, supra, at 272). Moreover, a 1-year statute of limitations on § 1983 claims "would improperly restrict the scope of § 1983 and controvert federal policy." 625 F. Supp., at 1571. The court concluded
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted permission for the appeal and affirmed. 816 F.2d 45 (1987). It stated that Wilson's description of § 1983 claims as general personal injury actions required a statute of limitations "expansive enough to accommodate the diverse personal injury torts that section 1983 has come to embrace." Id., at 48. As between the two New York statutes of limitations, the court observed: "By nature, section 214(5) is general; section 215(3) is more specific and exceptional. This dichotomy survives no matter how many similar intentional torts are judicially added to those enumerated in section 215(3)." Ibid. The Court of Appeals favored § 214(5) for another reason: its 3-year period of limitations "more faithfully represents the federal interest in providing an effective remedy for violations of civil rights than does the restrictive one year limit." Id., at 49. Injuries to personal rights are not "necessarily apparent to the victim at the time they are inflicted," the court explained, and "[e]ven where the injury itself is obvious, the constitutional dimensions of the tort may not be." Id., at 48.
The dissent argued that § 1983 actions are best analogized to intentional torts, id., at 51, and that, because § 215(3) governs "almost every intentional injury to the person," id., at
In this case, we again confront the consequences of Congress' failure to provide a specific statute of limitations to govern § 1983 actions. Title 42 U. S. C. § 1988 endorses the borrowing of state-law limitations provisions where doing so is consistent with federal law; § 1988 does not, however, offer any guidance as to which state provision to borrow.
In Wilson, we sought to end this "conflict, confusion and uncertainty." 471 U. S., at 266. Recognizing the problems inherent in the case-by-case approach, we determined that 42 U. S. C. § 1988 requires courts to borrow and apply to all § 1983 claims the one most analogous state statute of limitations. Ibid. See id., at 275 ("[F]ederal interests in uniformity, certainty, and the minimization of unnecessary litigation all support the conclusion that Congress favored this simple approach"); see also id., at 272 ("[A] simple, broad characterization of all § 1983 claims best fits the statute's remedial purpose"). We concluded, based upon the legislative history of § 1983 and the wide array of claims now embraced by that provision, that § 1983 "confer[s] a general remedy for injuries to personal rights." Id., at 278. Because "§ 1983 claims are best characterized as personal injury actions," we held that a
As the instant case indicates, Wilson has not completely eliminated the confusion over the appropriate limitations period for § 1983 claims. In States where one statute of limitations applies to all personal injury claims, Wilson supplies a clear answer. Courts considering § 1983 claims in States with multiple statutes of limitations for personal injury actions, however, have differed over how to determine which statute applies.
In choosing between the two alternatives endorsed by the Courts of Appeals — the intentional torts approach and the general or residual personal injury approach — we are mindful that ours is essentially a practical inquiry. Wilson, 471 U. S., at 272. Our decision in Wilson that one "simple broad characterization" of all § 1983 actions was appropriate under § 1988 was, after all, grounded in the realization that the potential
A rule endorsing the choice of the state statute of limitations for intentional torts would be manifestly inappropriate. Every State has multiple intentional tort limitations provisions, carving up the universe of intentional torts into different configurations. In New York, for example, § 215(3), the intentional tort statute endorsed by petitioners, covers eight enumerated torts. See supra, at 237. But different provisions cover other specified intentional torts. Malpractice actions are governed by one provision; certain veterans' claims, by another.
Petitioners' argument that courts should borrow the intentional tort limitations periods because intentional torts are most analogous to § 1983 claims fails to recognize the enormous practical disadvantages of such a selection. Moreover, this analogy is too imprecise to justify such a result. In Wilson, we expressly rejected the practice of drawing narrow analogies between § 1983 claims and state causes of action. 471 U. S., at 272. We explained that the Civil Rights Acts provided
The intentional tort analogy is particularly inapposite in light of the wide spectrum of claims which § 1983 has come to span. In Wilson, we noted that claims brought under § 1983 include
See also id., at 273, n. 31; Blackmun, Section 1983 and Federal Protection of Individual Rights — Will the Statute Remain Alive or Fade Away?, 60 N. Y. U. L. Rev. 1, 19-20 (1985). Many of these claims bear little if any resemblance to the common-law intentional tort. See Felder v. Casey, 487 U. S., at 146, n. 3. Even where intent is an element of a constitutional claim or defense, the necessary intent is often different from the intent requirement of a related common-law tort. E. g., Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 53 (1988) (distinguishing constitutional "malice" in the First Amendment context from common-law "malice"). Given that so many claims brought under § 1983 have no precise state-law analog, applying the statute of limitations for the limited category of intentional torts would be inconsistent with § 1983's broad scope.
The Court of Appeals therefore correctly applied New York's 3-year statute of limitations governing general personal injury actions to respondent Okure's claim.
"The following actions must be commenced within three years:
"5. an action to recover damages for a personal injury except as provided in sections 214-b, 214-c and 215 . . . ."
"The jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters conferred on the district courts by the provisions of this Title, and of Title `CIVIL RIGHTS,' and of Title `CRIMES,' for the protection of all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and for their vindication, shall be exercised and enforced in conformity with the laws of the United States, so far as such laws are suitable to carry the same into effect; but in all cases where they are not adapted to the object, or are deficient in the provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies and punish offenses against law, the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the State wherein the court having jurisdiction of such civil or criminal cause is held, so far as the same is not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States, shall be extended to and govern the said courts in the trial and disposition of the cause . . . ." 42 U. S. C. § 1988.
"While one main scourge of the evil — perhaps the leading one — was the Ku Klux Klan, the remedy created [§ 1983] was not a remedy against it or its members but against those who representing a State in some capacity were unable or unwilling to enforce a state law." Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 175-176 (1961) (emphasis in original; footnote omitted).
See also Wilson, supra, at 276; Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 534 (1981) ("Nothing in the language of § 1983 or its legislative history limits the statute solely to intentional deprivations of constitutional rights").
The intentional tort analogy also inadequately reflects the state of tort law at the time the Civil Rights Act was enacted. Almost all States had two types of personal injury claims: trespass and trespass or action on the case. J. K. Angell, Limitations of Actions at Law 13-14, 311-319 (1869); H. F. Buswell, Statute of Limitations and Adverse Possession 307-308 (1889). Trespass claims covered direct injury and action on the case indirect injury. W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton, Law of Torts 29-30 (5th ed. 1984). The paradigmatic § 1983 claim in 1871 involved a victim of violence or harassment who sued state officials for failing to prevent the harm; involving indirect injury, it would have been covered by the action on the case doctrine, including the relevant statute of limitations. Because most States have replaced action on the case with the general personal injury or residual provisions, and trespass with specialized intentional tort provisions, history supports the application of the former to § 1983 claims.