Momentum Builds Behind Padilla Legislation to Improve Accountability for Federal Law Enforcement

Senators Booker, Whitehouse to co-lead Accountability for Federal Law Enforcement Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are co-leading the Accountability for Federal Law Enforcement Act. Padilla’s legislation will improve accountability for federal law enforcement by providing individuals the right to sue federal law enforcement officers and agencies in civil court for a violation of their civil and constitutional rights.

Current law prevents individuals from filing a lawsuit against a federal law enforcement officer in many cases – though lawsuits against state and local law enforcement officers are allowed. The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled that the federal government will not be liable in a suit unless it waives its immunity and consents.

“In order to build trust in our justice system, we must give individuals the right to sue federal law enforcement agencies when the actions of their officers lead to a violation of civil rights,” said Senator Padilla. “Despite having the right to sue state and local law enforcement officers, Americans lack the right to hold federal law enforcement officials accountable in the same way. This legislation will help close that gap and give theAmerican people an important tool to fight against injustice.”

“Law enforcement officers are charged with protecting and serving our communities and when they violate people’s constitutional and civil rights they must be held to account. Under current law, federal officers can rarely be sued – even in the most egregious cases resulting in death,” said Senator Booker. “I’m proud to co-lead this legislation that will finally fix this flaw in our justice system and ensure that individuals whose rights have been violated by federal law enforcement officers can have their day in court and that the United States government will be held responsible for the misdeeds of its officers.”

“Decisions at the top of the chain of command guide the training, supervision, and discipline of police officers.  That’s why police departments must bear responsibility for officer misconduct,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “Our legislation draws on the age-old legal doctrine of repondeat superior liability to make sure command is accountable.  It’s a smart, proven approach.”

Additional cosponsors include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as well as Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Currently, a person can only seek civil damages against federal officers for a narrow set of claims including: unreasonable searches and seizures by federal officers; gender discrimination towards a federal employee; and inadequate medical treatment to a federal inmate.

Federal law enforcement has recently come under scrutiny for their use of force against peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. last summer that included the use of tear gas against demonstrators. It is unclear whether a lawsuit will be allowed to proceed against federal law enforcement given the current narrow scope of allowable claims.

Last year, the United States Supreme Court in Hernandez v. Mesa declined to hold a United States Border Patrol Agent liable for killing Sergio Hernandez, a teenage boy who was playing on the Mexican side of the canal that separates El Paso and Juarez. According to the court, it did not fit within the narrow parameters that currently allow for individuals to sue federal law enforcement officials.

While the Supreme Court has addressed the absence of a right of action against federal officers before, the scope of the provided “remedy” has been kept extremely narrow. Without a statute in place, this right will continue to be under-utilized and could disappear whenever the Court sees fit.

A copy of the bill is available here.


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