Open for Business: The Work of United States Attorneys' Offices in Civil Rights Enforcement

 

"Enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws is a top priority for the Department of Justice.
We must all work together, in Washington and across the country,
to ensure effective enforcement of these laws
in order to protect the most vulnerable in our society.”
- Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States

 

Overview

Civil Rights is one of the highest priorities of the Department of Justice and is vital to the work of the United States Attorneys' offices, as the Department's largest litigating component. From the time of our Nation’s founding, Americans have cherished above all the promise of equal opportunity and equal justice under the law.

The Department of Justice is charged with enforcing the laws that secure these vital promises. In many cases, we are the only recourse for the vulnerable who ask only that this great nation live up to the promises made through its Constitution and laws. While the country has made tremendous progress in advancing equal protection under the law, we are too frequently reminded that, in the words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, "the business of civil rights remains the unfinished business of America."

Our nation’s civil rights laws give meaning to the founding promise of equal opportunity for all. Delivering on that promise through the enforcement of federal laws is accomplished through close partnerships between the United States Attorneys' offices throughout the country and a newly re-invigorated Civil Rights Division.

In the last two years, United States Attorneys' offices across the nation have explored new ways to lead their communities in civil rights enforcement. Many offices have established new civil rights units and teams in an effort to institutionalize enhanced enforcement, including among others, the United States Attorneys’ offices in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Memphis, Tennessee; Los Angeles, California; and Boston, Massachusetts. Others have stepped up efforts to reach out to and engage vulnerable communities to build trust and to send the message that we are "open for business" in the effort to enforce civil rights laws. In almost every area of responsibility, United States Attorneys’ offices and our partners are investigating and bringing more cases than ever before.


Key Areas of Enforcement

The efforts of the United States Attorneys' offices fall within three major areas: (1) criminal investigations and prosecutions; (2) civil enforcement efforts; and (3) outreach, training, and initiatives. Under Attorney General Eric Holder these efforts have taken on a renewed vigor and urgency.



Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

United States Attorneys' offices are actively involved in the prosecution of violations of federal civil rights laws. Working in partnership with the FBI, which has designated civil rights as one of its top five priorities, the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorneys’ offices prosecute cases involving the violent interference with liberties and rights defined in the Constitution or federal law. The rights of both citizens and non-citizens are protected. In general, it is the use of force, threats, or intimidation that characterize a federal criminal violation of an individual's civil rights.

The types of violations prosecuted by United States Attorney’s offices, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Division, include:
  • Hate Crimes: Violent and intimidating acts motivated by animus based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

  • Official Misconduct: Intentional acts by law enforcement officials who misuse their positions to unlawfully deprive individuals of constitutional rights, such as the right to be free from unwarranted assault, sexual assault and theft of property.

  • Human Trafficking: Use of force or threats of force or other forms of coercion to compel labor or services from victims. Modern day slavery can involve migrant farm laborers, sweat shop workers, domestic servants, and brothel workers. Victims may be U.S. citizens or aliens, or adults or children.

  • Interference with Access to Reproductive Health Care: Violence directed at abortion clinics or health care providers, such as doctors or nurses.

  • Interference with the Exercise of Religious Beliefs and Destruction of Religious Property: Violent conduct targeting religious houses of worship, usually involving the arson of churches or synagogues.


Civil Enforcement Efforts

The nation’s civil rights statutes aim to protect against discrimination and other civil rights violations on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status or disability. The United States Attorneys’ offices are important in the national enforcement efforts, which seek to make the promises of these laws a reality across the nation. We have protected the civil rights of service members and individuals housed in public institutions. We have also protected the rights of Native Americans. Over the past few decades, the Department of Justice has been instrumental in many of our nation’s battles to advance civil rights, from the desegregation of public schools, from ensuring that girls and women have equal opportunities in schools and the workplace to guaranteeing that individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs and services to which we all have a right.

Today, working in close partnership with the Civil Rights Division, United States Attorneys' offices work across the nation to combat traditional civil rights violations, while also addressing new, emerging challenges to equal justice and equal opportunity. That work is carried on in many areas, including disability rights, educational opportunities, employment litigation, and housing and fair credit to name a few.


Outreach, Training, and Initiatives

Each United States Attorney’s Office has a designated Civil Rights Coordinator, as well as designated points of contact and coordinators for special subject matters including human trafficking, hate crimes, violence against providers of reproductive health services, and limited English proficiency. Many have new civil rights units that are designed to create a sustainable and permanent enforcement strategy.

United States Attorneys’ offices are involved in a variety of task forces and working groups and are actively engaged in training and outreach efforts. For example, there are currently 39 Department of Justice/Bureau of Justice Assistance funded Human Trafficking Tasks Forces around the country on which United States Attorneys’ offices participate.

The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Labor have recently launched a Pilot Anti-Trafficking Coordination Teams (ACTeams) as part of a nationwide Human Trafficking Enhanced Enforcement Initiative designed to better coordinate federal criminal investigations and prosecutions of human trafficking offenses. The Phase I Pilot ACTeams will be run out of the United States Attorneys’ offices in Atlanta, El Paso, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Miami, and will be operated under the leadership of the local U.S. Attorney and the highest-ranking federal investigative agents from the relevant regional FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Labor field offices. The ACTeams will focus on developing federal criminal human trafficking investigations and prosecutions to protect the rights of human trafficking victims, bringing traffickers to justice and dismantling human trafficking networks.

The Department of Justice’s National Advocacy Center in Columbia, South Carolina sponsors annual training for Assistant United States Attorneys on the prosecution of federal criminal civil rights violations, as well as training in civil enforcement of civil rights. Training materials and resource guides are also provided throughout the Department of Justice on a wide range of civil rights issues, including recent resources guides on human trafficking and civil enforcement of civil rights laws.

United States Attorneys’ offices, in close conjunction with the Civil Rights Division, are actively involved in civil rights training for law enforcement and communities throughout the country. For example a number of United States Attorneys’ offices have sponsored, with the Civil Rights Division, conferences, roundtables, and outreach and training on implementing and enforcing the new Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and related civil rights issues, including the United States Attorneys’ offices in: Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Brooklyn, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New Haven, Connecticut; Wichita, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Little Rock, Arkansas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles, California; and Hagatna, Guam. Future trainings are in the planning stages for additional districts, including the United States Attorneys’ offices in Wilmington, Delaware; Miami, Florida; Tampa, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; Dallas, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Fairview Heights, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Salt Lake City, Utah, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Finally, United States Attorneys’ offices have traditionally been active in community outreach on a wide variety of issues and to diverse communities. Most recently, United States Attorneys’ offices have increased and enhanced their outreach efforts to Arab and Muslim American and Sikh communities throughout the country. United States Attorneys’ offices conduct outreach efforts with many local groups and individuals to build trusting and collaborative relationships with the constituencies they serve, to enhance our national security and law enforcement goals, and ensure that information is shared appropriately. This outreach is guided by the goal of protecting both our security and our values, and improving our ability to perform our duties in a manner that is consistent with core American values such as respect for civil liberties, embracing diversity, and commitment to religious freedom. These are values that are found in the Constitution and laws of the United States.