There are a lot of potential Supreme Court decisions coming within the next month that will shape how Americans experience abortion, gun control, and climate change. That said, today’s ruling regarding border patrol agents could shape how authority figures slip out of accountability. CNN reports that the Supreme Court handed down a decision making agents who violate the Constitution immune from lawsuits.
In a 6-3 decision, the judges ruled that a Border Patrol agent in Washington state cannot be personally sued in federal court for damages after a private citizen brought claims of illegal retaliation and excessive force in Egbert v. Boule.
US citizen Robert Boule filed a lawsuit against Customs and Border Patrol Agent Erik Egbert in 2014. Boule, who owned a bed and breakfast near the Canadian border in Washington, alleged the agent used excessive force and retaliated after he reported injuries to Egbert’s superiors.
The suit sought damages for violating Boule’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, Boule claimed Egbert’s retaliation violated his First Amendment rights, and entering his private property, refusing to leave, and pushing him to the ground violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
His lawyers pointed to the 1971 decision in the Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics case that held that a private individual could sue a federal officer for damages if his fundamental rights are violated. However, no similar statute explicitly authorizes suits against federal agents.
First, the court ruled 9-0 that the Border Patrol agent could not face a lawsuit under a First Amendment retaliation claim. Regarding the fourth amendment claim, a 6-3 ruling among ideological lines says that federal agents could not be held liable for alleged excessive use of force.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority option and implied agents may not be held responsible for violating constitutional rights unless Congress has authorized such lawsuits for damages.
“Congress is better positioned to create remedies in the border-security context, and the Government already has provided alternative remedies that protect plaintiffs like Boule,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas also claimed extending Bivens to that context “could pose an acute risk of increasing” social costs, including “the risk that fear of personal monetary liability and harassing litigation will unduly inhibit officials in the discharge of their duties.” He went on to state said the court has only twice extended Bivens, which concerned the unconstitutional search of a home in Brooklyn in 1980.
“A plaintiff can turn practically any adverse action into grounds for a retaliation claim,” Thomas wrote, adding that even a “frivolous retaliation claim” could set off an expansive discovery process in “which there is often no clear end to the relevant evidence.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes in her dissent that Thomas’s decision was at odds with the Bivens case.
“Boule’s Fourth Amendment claim does not arise in a new context,” she wrote, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. “Bivens itself involved a U.S. citizen bringing a Fourth Amendment claim against individual, rank-and-file federal law enforcement officers who allegedly violated his constitutional rights within the United States by entering his property without a warrant and using excessive force. Those are precisely the facts of Boule’s complaint.”
Federal officers already have a broad stroke of immunity regarding lawsuits, but today’s decision might make it even more challenging for citizens. Even with today’s ruling, Justice Sotomayor hopes Bivens can still survive.
“Although today’s opinion will make it harder for plaintiffs to bring a successful Bivens claim, even in the Fourth Amendment context,” she wrote, “the lower courts should not read it to render Bivens a dead letter.”