WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against a man who sued a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent for excessive force over the divisive issue of police liability and accountability that has plagued Congress for years. did.
A dispute between the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn and a customs agent off the northern border came before judges as lower courts and lawmakers wrestled questions about when law enforcement could be prosecuted. In the case of federal authorities, courts have allowed such lawsuits in limited circumstances.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said it is the job of Congress to allow Americans to prosecute the federal police, not the courts. Four other Conservative judges joined in Thomas’ opinion and a fifth, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, agreed with the conclusion but wrote a different consensus opinion.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote an opinion that partially agreed and partially disagreed with Thomas. That opinion included two other liberal justices.
Americans can file civil rights lawsuits against state and local police under Reconstruction-era federal law, but the law does not apply to federal law enforcement. Instead, claims against federal agencies are allowed under the Supreme Court’s 1971 precedent, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, in which agents from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time searched a person’s home without a warrant. .
The main question that has divided lower courts is the scope of the 1971 precedent: does it allow lawsuits against the federal police in other circumstances, or should the facts of the trial closely match the warrantless search involved in the Beevens ?
The Supreme Court is hesitant to allow lawsuits if they raise new claims under new circumstances, arguing that it is Congress that authorizes those lawsuits, not federal courts. Fourth Amendment advocates say the hesitation has created a situation where it is nearly impossible to bring a lawsuit against federal officials.
The criticism is similar to concerns raised about qualified immunity for local police because it opens up a debate about how much liability police should face for jobs, which often involve split-second decisions. Qualified immunity is the legal principle that protects officials from liability for civil rights violations in a number of circumstances.
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Smuggler’s Inn’s owner, Robert Boul, said a customs agent used excessive force by pushing him to the ground. The agent, Eric Egbert, was at Boule’s property at the time and wanted to speak with one of the inn’s guests. Boule intervened and told Egbert to leave.
Bowle also claimed that Egbert violated his First Amendment rights in retaliation when he called his superiors at the agency to complain about the incident. He said Egbert responded by asking the IRS to investigate Smugglers Inn.
A federal district court dismissed the case against the CPB agent. But the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California reversed that decision.