WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation to improve accountability for federal law enforcement. The Accountability for Federal Law Enforcement Act will provide 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 the American people an important tool to fight against injustice.”
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 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.