'Project Exile' and the Allocation of Federal Law Enforcement Authority

Daniel C. Richman, Columbia Law School


As gun control once again becomes a hot political issue, one rare point of ostensible unanimity has been the success of the Eastern District of Virginia United States Attorney's Office's "Project Exile," which (at least until recently) has targeted gun violence in the Richmond area by funneling all gun arrests made by state and local authorities to federal court, if at all possible under federal firearm statutes. Republicans have proposed extending the program nationwide. For Democrats, the lesson is the need for more ATF agents. Beneath the bipartisan plaudits lies a fierce debate over Exile's negative implications ? the degree to which federal firearms enforcement efforts should go beyond such programs. The purpose of this essay is to go beyond the gun debate, however, and explore the implications of Exile politics as a new stage in the devolution of federal enforcement power. An inevitable consequence of the now longstanding presidential interest in episodic violent crime has been to shift control over federal enforcement assets from Washington to U.S. Attorneys' Offices - the entities best suited to assess and target local problems and to obtain the cooperation of local authorities in the effort. The commitment of federal resources in this area has been highly discretionary, however, varying by district, and balanced against the needs of more national programs. Only time will tell whether Republican efforts to extend Exile nationwide are just a peculiar brand of gun control rhetoric or whether they mark an new phase in efforts of legislators to put federal enforcement resources at the disposal of state and local authorities. If the latter proves true, then the legacy of Project Exile ? itself an innovative federal initiative ? may be a serious challenge to the idea of federal enforcement policy in the areas where federal, state and local authority most overlap.