Suing Law Enforcement Officials In Federal Court: Easier Said Than Done

Under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States, a state law enforcement official typically cannot be sued in his official capacity for acts done within the scope of his official duties. The reason is the Eleventh Amendment which prohibits lawsuits against a state or “state actors” without state consent. This constitutional prohibition against such lawsuits typically means that if someone has a civil rights claim they wish to assert in court against a law enforcement official then they might need to consider doing so in state court as opposed to federal court. Obviously, filing a lawsuit in a state court where the law enforcement agency exists is a difficult proposition because the lawsuit has to be filed in the same jurisdiction where the law enforcement authorities serve as bailiffs to the court and otherwise have considerable control over the jurisdiction implicated. To get around the Eleventh Amendment, one has to establish that the individual was either not a “state actor” or was acting outside the scope of his or her authority. Another exception to the Eleventh Amendment is claims brought against law enforcement officials not in their official capacity but rather in their individual capacity.
An officer acting within the scope of his discretionary authority who does not violate clear constitutional precedent concerning his/her actions may be difficult to hold liable in federal court. While it may be difficult, it is not impossible. Again, the cases are always factually specific and the legal issues turn on the facts. Nonetheless, in considering where to file a lawsuit against a law enforcement official in the context of a potential civil rights claim, one must be mindful of the Eleventh Amendment and the various restrictions it imposes upon litigants seeking redress for civil rights violations.

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