Administrative agencies are often tasked with enforcing statutes. To this end, they create rules to help them achieve the legislators’ goals, and they conduct investigations to monitor compliance and identify violations. Some agencies are authorized to pursue formal legal action for alleged violations of rules, regulations, or statutes. These actions may be purely administrative in nature, or agencies may file suit in civil court. In some situations, an agency may pursue criminal charges against an individual or business.
An agency’s enforcement authority is limited to the powers granted to it by statute. Agencies cannot pursue matters that are outside the scope of the statute in an administrative proceeding, nor can they impose new procedures or penalties that the statute does not provide. They may, however, be able to pursue additional remedies by going outside of purely administrative procedures, such as by filing a civil lawsuit in a court of general jurisdiction. An agency can only do this, of course, if authorized to do so by statute.
Many administrative agencies have authority to pursue enforcement actions outside of any court system. Individuals and businesses affected by these types of proceedings may be able to appeal an agency’s decision to a tribunal, such as a court of general jurisdiction.
One example at the federal level is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which issues permits to businesses for various activities that might affect environmental conditions, and which is authorized to order businesses to take certain actions in order to brings themselves into compliance with environmental regulations. This often takes the form of a notice of violation issued to the business with an order, which gives the business the opportunity to comply with the order or file an appeal.
Article III of the United States Constitution establishes the U.S. Supreme Court, and Congress created the system of federal district courts and circuit courts of appeal with the Judiciary Act of 1789. These are known as “Article III courts.” Congress has created additional tribunals for the purpose of addressing specific types of claims. These are often known as “Article I courts,” after the part of the Constitution that establishes Congress. Certain administrative enforcement actions may be brought in these types of tribunals.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with responsibility over enforcement of immigration laws and regulations. One of its functions is to seek the removal, or deportation, of individuals it believes are in this country without proper documentation. Immigration courts, which are part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Department of Justice (DOJ), have jurisdiction over these types of immigration matters. Appeals of immigration court decisions go to another Article I court, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), and then to an Article III appellate court.
Enforcement through Civil Litigation
Some administrative agencies conduct enforcement actions by bringing suit in the court system. They may be authorized to file suit themselves. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, is authorized to file civil lawsuits for alleged violations of securities regulations and statutes like the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Department of Justice can file suit on behalf of other agencies, such as the EPA, that do not have statutory authority to sue on their own.
Agencies that have specific law enforcement responsibilities may have the authority to initiate criminal prosecutions, or to refer them to a prosecutor’s office. This includes agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is part of DOJ. Some agencies outside the DOJ, like the SEC, may also be able to file criminal complaints on their own.