The Supreme Court agreed Friday to a hear a case that may provide clarity on whether Americans are entitled to sue federal officers for excessive force.
The case stems from a 2014 altercation between a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent and the owner of a bed-and-breakfast on the Canadian border, the Smuggler’s Inn. The business owner claims the agent violated his Fourth Amendment rights when he entered his property and pushed him to the ground as he pursued a guest.
By taking the case, the Supreme Court is jumping into an issue it has otherwise avoided: When people may file lawsuits against federal officers. The case is one of several pending at the court to raise that question.
“Border Patrol agents face uniquely heightened risks of personal lawsuits for money damages that could alter on-the-job decision-making,” an attorney for the agent told the Supreme Court in a July brief.
People may file lawsuits against state and local police under a federal law passed in the late 19th Century, but the law doesn’t apply to federal law enforcement. Claims against federal officers are instead filed based on a Supreme Court precedent from 1971 in which federal police searched the home of a New York City man without a warrant.
But the Supreme Court — and some lower courts, by extension — have been hesitant to accept those lawsuits if they raise new claims under new circumstances, arguing that it is Congress that should authorize those actions. Fourth Amendment advocates say that has created a situation where it’s virtually impossible to bring claims against federal law enforcement officers.
The criticism is similar to concerns raised about qualified immunity for local police. That’s the legal doctrine that protects officers from liability for civil rights violations in many circumstances. Advocates say when it comes to federal officers, lawsuits are often stopped before qualified immunity even is raised.
“With federal officials these days it’s like qualified immunity plus,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.
The business owner also claimed the agent violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating when he called his superiors to complain about the incident. He said the agent asked the IRS and other authorities 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.
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