WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against a man who had sued a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent for excessive force, wading into the divisive issue of police liability and accountability that has vexed Congress for years.
The dispute between the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn, located feet from the northern border, and the customs agent came before the justices at a time when lower courts and lawmakers have wrestled with the question of when law enforcement may be sued. In the case of federal officers, courts have allowed such suits in limited circumstances.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that it is the job of Congress to allow Americans to sue federal police, not the courts. Four other conservative justices joined Thomas’ opinion and a fifth, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, agreed with the conclusion but wrote a separate concurring opinion.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote an opinion that partly concurred and partly dissented from Thomas. That opinion was joined by two other liberal justices.
Americans may file civil rights lawsuits against state and local police under a Reconstruction-era federal law, but the law doesn’t apply to federal law enforcement. Claims against federal agencies are instead allowed under a Supreme Court precedent from 1971, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, in which agents with what was then the Federal Bureau of Narcotics searched the home of a man without a warrant.
The key question that has divided lower courts is the scope of the 1971 precedent: Does it permit suits against federal police in other circumstances, or must the facts of a lawsuit closely match the warrantless search involved in Bivens?
The Supreme Court has been hesitant to permit lawsuits if they raise new claims under new circumstances, arguing that it is Congress that should authorize those lawsuits, not the federal courts. Fourth Amendment advocates say that hesitancy has created a situation where it’s virtually impossible to bring suits against federal officers.
The criticism is similar to concerns raised about qualified immunity for local police because it opens a debate about how much liability police should face for jobs that often involve split-second decisions. Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that protects officers from liability for civil rights violations in many circumstances.
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Robert Boule, the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn, said the Customs agent used excessive force by pushing him to the ground. The agent, Erik Egbert, was on Boule’s property at the time and seeking to speak with one of the inn’s guests. Boule intervened and asked Egbert to leave.
Boule also claimed that Egbert violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating when he called his superiors at the agency to complain about the incident. He said that Egbert responded by asking the IRS to investigate the Smuggler’s Inn.
A federal district court dismissed the case against the CPB agent. But the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed that decision.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court rules against man who sued CPB agent for use of force
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