On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court entered the controversial topic of responsibility and accountability for federal law enforcement officials by rendering a decision that went against a citizen who had sued a Customs and Border Protection agent for using excessive force.
The dispute between the customs agent and the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn, which is situated only a few feet from the northern border, was brought before the justices at a time when lower courts and lawmakers were debating the circumstances under which law enforcement officials may be subject to legal action. These kinds of lawsuits against federal agents have been allowed by the courts in certain instances.
In a majority decision that was decided by a vote of 6-3, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas noted that it is normally the obligation of Congress to enable citizens of the United States to sue federal authorities for breaches of the Fourth Amendment that include disproportionate use of force.
Thomas noted that in comparison to an internal complaint process at US Customs, “Congress is better positioned to create remedies in the border-security context.” He was referring to the situation.
Sonia Sotomayor, an associate justice, stated that the court’s judgment on the Fourth Amendment claim “contravenes precedent and will deprive many more individuals who suffer injuries at the hands of other federal officers of an important remedy.” Sotomayor agreed with the judgment of the court to reject the innkeeper’s separate First Amendment argument and affirmed its validity.
There were two other liberal justices who agreed with Sotomayor’s decision.
A federal statute from the time of Reconstruction allows citizens of the United States to file lawsuits against state and local law enforcement for civil rights abuses, but the legislation does not extend to law enforcement at the federal level. The precedent set by the Supreme Court in the case Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents in 1971, in which agents from the Government Bureau of Narcotics, which existed at the time, searched the house of a man without a warrant, allows for the filing of claims against federal agencies instead.
Lower courts have reached different conclusions regarding the answer to the primary question of whether the precedent set in 1971 permits lawsuits against federal police in other situations or whether the facts of a lawsuit must closely match the warrantless search that was involved in the Bivens case.
The Supreme Court has been reticent to approve cases that bring new claims in new situations, claiming that such actions should be authorized by Congress rather than the federal courts. The reluctance of the government to face legal action, according to proponents of the Fourth Amendment, has made it practically hard to sue federal police.
Thomas noted that the courts need to evaluate whether there is any reason to assume that Congress could be better prepared to provide a damages remedy before determining whether or not to widen the conditions under which a Bivens case might be brought. In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the response ought to always be “yes.”
According to what Gorsuch has written, “the bread and butter of legislative committees is the weighing of the costs and benefits of new legislation.” According to the statute that is now in effect, it has no place in federal courts that are entrusted with settling problems and conflicts.
The complaint is comparable to the issues that have been made concerning qualified immunity for local police officers in the sense that it raises the question of how much culpability police officers should face for professions that often entail split-second choices. Legal concept known as qualified immunity protects law enforcement officials from being held accountable for civil rights breaches in a number of different contexts.
Robert Boule, the proprietor of the Smuggler’s Inn, which is located in Washington state close to the Canadian border, asserts that the Customs official pushed him to the ground with an excessive amount of force. The agent, Erik Egbert, was on the grounds of Boule at the time, attempting to have a conversation with one of the inn’s guests. Following Boule’s intervention, Egbert was asked to leave the premises.
Boule also alleged that Egbert violated his rights under the First Amendment by taking retaliatory action against him after he reported about the event to his superiors at the agency. Boule made this allegation in the context of the First Amendment. He said that Egbert had given a response by asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the Smuggler’s Inn.
A federal district judge has decided not to prosecute the CPB agent who was the defendant in the case. Nonetheless, the ruling was reversed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the state of California.
The preceding is a summary of an article that originally appeared on The Daily Cable.