Supreme Court shields Border Patrol agents from excessive force suits

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that Border Patrol agents are generally shielded from lawsuits that allege the use of excessive force, the latest in a series of decisions narrowing the legal avenue for alleged victims of abuse by federal officers.

The 6-3 ruling, penned by Justice Clarence Thomas, broke along ideological lines, with the court’s conservatives comprising a majority over the dissent of the court’s three liberals.

The case concerned whether a lawsuit should be allowed to move forward against a Border Patrol agent accused of using excessive force during his search of an inn located just south of the U.S.-Canada border.

The conservative majority, citing national security concerns, declined to extend a judge-made rule that allows plaintiffs to sue federal officers for certain constitutional violations. That relief, based on a precedent set by Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, is generally disfavored by judicial conservatives.

“Because matters intimately related to foreign policy and national security are rarely proper subjects for judicial intervention,” Thomas wrote, “we reaffirm that a Bivens cause of action may not lie where, as here, national security is at issue.”

The dispute decided Wednesday arose in 2014 when Customs and Border Patrol Agent Erik Egbert entered the property of an inn located in Blaine, Wash., near the U.S.-Canada border, and refused to leave after a request from innkeeper Robert Boule and despite having no search warrant.

Boule alleges that Egbert shoved him, which prompted Boule to lodge a complaint with Egbert’s supervisors. According to Boule’s account, Egbert later retaliated by asking the IRS to investigate Boule. Boule sued, alleging violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court has allowed civil suits for monetary damages over alleged constitutional violations to proceed against federal officers in only a limited set of circumstances since its 1971 decision in the Bivens case, which also involved alleged excessive force.

The justices have expanded their criteria for permissible suits only twice over the intervening 40 years — in a gender discrimination case against a member of Congress, and in a suit against jailers over an alleged violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Justice Department backed the federal agent in the case. The deparment urged the justices to deny relief because, unlike Bivens, the case involved national security concerns that risked chilling the U.S.-Canadian security relationship at the border.

The court’s three liberals dissented from the majority’s rejection of Boule’s Fourth Amendment claim and accused the conservatives of distorting precedent.

“If the legal standard the Court articulates to reject Boule’s Fourth Amendment claim sounds unfamiliar, that is because it is,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. “Just five years after circumscribing the standard for allowing Bivens claims to proceed, a restless and newly constituted Court sees fit to refashion the standard anew to foreclose remedies in yet more cases. The measures the Court takes to ensure Boule’s claim is dismissed are inconsistent with governing precedent.”

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