I think it's generally accepted that in the US:

state officers cannot be compelled to enforce federal law.

For more details as to why that is accepted:

In Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, 935 (1997), a Montana Sheriff Jay Printz challenged the constitutionality of a federal handgun control scheme that required him and other local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun buyers, ensuring that no handguns were illegally purchased. In invalidating the law, the Supreme Court stated that Congress cannot require state officers to enforce federal laws. Asserting that it was discovered early on by the framers of the Constitution that "using the states as the instruments of federal governance was both ineffectual and provocative of federal-state conflict," the Court said that "the Constitution [] contemplates that a State's government will represent and remain accountable to its own citizens."

Some typical examples of this divergence are the recent "sanctuary city" disputes and the variation in marijuana laws between federal law and some states.

Is there a common term used to describing this kind of situation where local/state law enforcement doesn't care about enforcing some federal law?

2 Answers 2


I see that a proposed term in one paper is State Noncooperation. I'm not sure how widespread that is. I'm also having doubts as to its generality, because it seems to mainly apply to the case where the state has actually passed laws explicitly limiting some forms of cooperation. And this is actually not as recent as one might think with respect to immigration; a 2008 paper noted:

The cooperation debate in the immigration context has immediate, practical significance. Currently, some 49 cities and states have laws that limit the authority of their police and other employees to cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement. These local non-cooperation laws prohibit local government employees from reporting to the federal government undocumented persons they encounter in the course of providing police protection, health care, education, and other essential local government services. At the same time, the federal government has passed laws requiring the very same cooperation that local governments have prohibited: under federal law, local governments must allow their employees who want to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement on a voluntary basis to do so. This federal push to get local governments involved in immigration law enforcement has intensified after the attacks of 9/11.

Under the current legal framework, the federal government wins. Its exercise of its preemption power faces no Tenth Amendment challenge because, unlike Printz and New York, federal cooperation laws do not commandeer local governments into passing legislation or enforcing federal schemes. [...]

In April 2002, the Justice Department wrote (but did not release) a legal opinion stating that cities and states have “inherent authority” as sovereigns to enforce immigration laws. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft followed up with an invitation to local police to enforce immigration laws as part of “our narrow anti-terrorism mission.” And members of Congress have drafted legislation to give financial incentives to cities and states to enforce immigration laws (and financial penalties for those which refuse). The goal: to dramatically multiply the enforcement power of federal immigration authorities by enlisting the aid of local police and other local authorities, who are already “on the beat” in America’s cities and towns. While some local governments enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to enforce immigration laws, others refused to become involved, passing laws that limit, to different degrees, their authority to cooperate in immigration law enforcement (“non-cooperation laws”).

The language and scope of these non-cooperation laws vary. A typical non-cooperation law was that passed by the state of Alaska in May 2003, prohibiting Alaskan agencies from using state resources to enforce immigration laws. In Fresno, California, the non-cooperation law is much more specific: prohibiting the police from reporting undocumented immigrants to federal immigration authorities in cases where no other crimes have been committed. And Seattle’s ordinance, passed in January 2003, cuts off local cooperation at an earlier pass by prohibiting police officers and other city employees from even inquiring about the immigration status of any person, unless otherwise required by law.

But at least the terminology "non-cooperation laws" appears somewhat established when such laws do exist. A Senate report from 1995 also makes use of this term (non-cooperation laws), but more often mentions "non-cooperation policies". The latter is obviously broader in scope.

As an aside: while not obliged, states are allowed to cooperate in federal law enforcement although the means seem to need be specified in each statute:

In fact, there are two types of public enforcement. Many federal statutes authorize civil enforcement by both a federal agency and the states, typically through states' attorneys general. State enforcement provisions appear most frequently in federal laws designed to protect consumers, such as the recent Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill. Proponents of state enforcement emphasize its potential to buttress federal efforts by putting more "cops on the beat." [footnote:] statement of Sen. Mark Pryor arguing that Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act (CPSIA) "ensures that [state attorneys general] can act as real cops on the beat, looking out for consumers and restoring confidence in the marketplace".

Also note that the legality of state non-cooperation laws (as opposed to mere ad hoc non-cooperation) is currently making its way through the Federal Circuit, at least in the case of California.

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    @BobE: I'm not terribly biased toward my anwer. If you think a better term exists, please contribute your own answer. And I do end up answering a fair proportion of my own questions here on P SE, although I don't ask when I already know the answer. Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 13:16
  • I am politely trying to say that you are not asking the original question in good faith, that is, that you don't know the answer or can not quickly determine the answer.
    – BobE
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 15:43
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    @BobE: I didn't know the answer (I wrote later on) when I asked the question. I can see why you may get that contrary impression now since I've also edited the question politics.stackexchange.com/posts/40590/revisions The latter might not have beeen the best of ideas, but I thought it needed more context. Alas P SE does not provide exact timestamps (other SE sites do.) Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 15:45
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    @BobE: for the more general discussion regarding self-answers see meta.stackexchange.com/questions/172608/… Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 15:48
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    @BobE I also find that questions with answers sometimes prompt those who disagree with the answer to offer their own answer, whereas they might leave the question unanswered otherwise. As noted in the Meta Stack Exchange link, there is even a facility for posting a question and answer together, simultaneously. That facility must exist for a reason.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 17:47

I want to also suggest that “Nullification” is a related concept:

Nullification, in United States constitutional history, is a legal theory that a state has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law which that state has deemed unconstitutional with respect to the United States Constitution (as opposed to the state's own constitution). The theory of nullification has never been legally upheld by federal courts.

This is not precisely what you’re describing, as States can refuse to enforce Federal law without declaring that law unconstitutional. This section later in the same article explains the difference:

[T]he Supreme Court indicated in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842), the states cannot be compelled to use state law enforcement resources to enforce federal law. ... States therefore may refuse to use their legislative or administrative resources to enforce federal law. This should be distinguished from nullification. States that withhold their enforcement assistance, but do not declare the federal law unconstitutional or forbid its enforcement by the federal government, are not declaring federal law invalid and therefore are not engaging in nullification. As Prigg held, the federal law still is valid and federal authorities may enforce it within the state. The states in this situation, rather than attempting to legally nullify federal law, are attempting to make enforcement of federal law more difficult by refusing to make available their legislative and administrative resources.

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