“Color of Law” – & Related Definitions

Definition of COLOR:

n. (13c) 1. Appearance, guise, or semblance; especially, the appearance of a legal claim to a right, authority, or office <color of title> <under color of state law>. 2, Common law pleading. An apparent, but legally insufficient, right or ground of action, admitted in a defendant’s pleading to exist for the plaintiff; esp., a plaintiff’s apparent (and usu. false) right or title to property, the existence of which is pleaded by the defendant and then attacked as defective, as part of a confession and avoidance to remove the case from the jury by turning the issue from one of fact to one of law. See GIVE COLOR.[1]

    Excerpt from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England:

     “It is a rule of pleading, that no man be allowed to plead specially such a plea as amounts only to the general issue, or a total denial of the charge; but in such case he shall be driven to plead the general issue in terms, whereby the whole question is referred to a jury.  But if the defendant, in an assise or action of trespass, be desirous to refer the validity of his title to the court rather than the jury, he may state his title specially, and at the same time give colour to the plaintiff, or suppose him to have an appearance or colour of title, bad indeed in point of law, but of which the jury are not competent judges. As if his own true title be, that he claims by feoffment with livery from A, by force of which he entered on the lands in question, he cannot plead this by itself, as it amounts to no more than the general issue . . . not guilty in an action of trespass.  But he may allege this specially, provided he goes farther and says, that the plaintiff claiming by colour of a prior deed of feoffment, without livery, entered; upon whom he entered; and may then refer himself to the judgment of the court which of these two titles is the best in point of law.”[2]

Definition of COLOR OF LAW:

(17c) The appearance or semblance, without the substance, of a legal right.  The term usually implies a misuse of power made possible because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of the state.  State action is synonymous with color of [state] law in the context of federal civil-rights statutes or criminal law.  See’ STATE ACTION.

Definition of COLOR OF OFFICE:

(16c) The authority or power that is inherent in an office, esp. a public office.  Acts taken under the color of an office are vested with, or appear to be vested with, the authority entrusted to that office.”

      Excerpt from Rollin M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce’s Criminal Law:

     “The starting point in the law. of bribery seems to have been when a judge, for doing his office or acting under color of his office, took a reward or fee from some person who had occasion to come before him, and apparently guilt attached only to the judge himself and not to the bribe-giver.”[3]

See “Need-to-Know U.S. Code to STOP Color of Law Crimes

FBI Website on Color of Law


[1]: All definitions from: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black & Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-62130-6

[2]: 3 William Black stone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 309 (1768)

[3]: Rollin M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce’s Criminal Law 527 (3d ed. 1982)


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