US Supreme Court curtails right to sue federal agents
© WikiMedia (Daderot)
US Supreme Court curtails right to sue federal agents

The US Supreme Court Wednesday made it harder to individually sue federal agents who violate constitutional rights. In a 6-3 decision the court limited the use of the 1971 case Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents to establish grounds for a lawsuit.

Bivens allowed federal agents to be individually sued for violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unlawful search and seizure. The US itself can be sued for the tortious actions of its law enforcement officers exercising their duties according to the Federal Tort Claims Act. The decision does not eliminate the right to sue the agency; it only forbids lawsuits against individual agents on constitutional grounds.

The current case involved a bed and breakfast on the US-Canadian border. The owner, Robert Boule, had allowed a guest from Turkey. A federal agent, Erik Egbert, decided to confront the guest who was legally present in the US. When the guest was in a car approaching Boule’s property, Egbert approached the car. Boule asked Egbert to leave, but he refused. When Boule stepped in between Egbert and the guest, Egbert used force to shove, grab and push Boule.

The court denied that the Constitution allows any inherent right to sue the agent. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Congress is better positioned” to establish grounds for a lawsuit.

The decision, however, pertains to federal—not state—agents as the Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows citizens to sue states for deprivations of constitutional rights.