from the precedent-controls-bullets-right-up-until-they-cross-an-imaginary-line dept
Border Patrol agents kill a lot of people, most of them citizens of another country. For years, agents have been able to open fire on people in moving vehicles and [checks Congressional report] people throwing rocks at them. New guidelines were handed down by the agency in 2014 following an outside investigation of the Border Patrol’s use of force. The investigation contained many recommendations that could have resulted in fewer killings, but the Border Patrol rejected the conclusions and the suggested fixes.
So, the killings continue. And not much is being done to stop them. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stripped qualified immunity from a Border Patrol agent who fired at leaast 16 bullets across the border at a 16-year-old resident who was allegedly throwing rocks at him. Ten of them hit the teen, killing him. The court ruled this was basically murder, something clearly not covered by qualified immunity. The Fourth Amendment governs what US government employees do. It makes no difference that the victim was not a US citizen.
That finding is likely to be struck down if it makes its way to the Supreme Court. A similar case involving the killing of Mexican resident by a Border Patrol agent standing on US soil has just received the Supreme Court stamp of approval.
Fifteen-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca was shot and killed by Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa, Jr. as he played with friends in a culvert along the US-Mexico border. According to Hernandez’s survivors, he and his friends were running back and forth across the culvert to touch the US border fence before running back to the Mexican side of the culvert. Agent Mesa claimed the teen was “involved in an illegal border crossing attempt” and “pelting” him with rocks.
The shooting resulted in an international incident. The Mexican government wanted the agent extradited to face murder charges in Mexico, the country where the murder occurred, even if the bullets originated on the US side of the border. The US government, on the other hand, decided Agent Mesa had done nothing wrong – that his deadly actions were clearly justified by the presence of rocks and/or border-crossing attempts.
Hernandez’s parents sued. The Fifth Circuit took two swings at the case (once at the Supreme Court’s request) and both times refused to extend the scope of Bivens to cover an incident where a government agent on the US side of the border shot and killed someone on the other side.
The Supreme Court likewise has refused to read Bivens as supporting a lawsuit against US government employees on behalf of a citizen of a foreign country. The Supreme Court believes doing so would upset the delicate balance currently preserved by Mexican outrage and US government indifference. From the ruling [PDF]:
Both the United States and Mexico have legitimate and important interests that may be affected by the way in which this matter is handled. The United States has an interest in ensuring that agents assigned the difficult and important task of policing the border are held to standards and judged by procedures that satisfy United States law and do not undermine the agents’ effectiveness and morale. Mexico has an interest in exercising sovereignty over its territory and in protecting and obtaining justice for its nationals. It is not our task to arbitrate between them.
This sounds positively Solomonic until you read the next paragraph of the ruling, along with some context that isn’t discussed in the ruling.
In the absence of judicial intervention, the United States and Mexico would attempt to reconcile their interests through diplomacy––and that has occurred. The broad issue of violence along the border, the occurrence of cross-border shootings, and this particular matter have been addressed through diplomatic channels. In 2014, Mexico and the United States established a joint Border Violence Prevention Council, and the two countries have addressed cross-border shootings through the United States-Mexico bilateral Human Rights Dialogue. Following the Justice Department investigation in the present case, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to “work with the Mexican government within existing mechanisms and agreements to prevent future incidents.”
That 2014 date is key. That’s the same year the Border Patrol was given new use-of-force guidelines while simultaneously rejecting the findings of an outside investigation that said agents used their weapons far too often in situations that either didn’t require deadly force (rock throwing) or created new dangers (shooting at moving vehicles). The US government also cleared Agent Mesa of any wrongdoing, which suggests it has zero desire to hold its own people accountable for extrajudicial killings of foreign citizens — something that can be easily accomplished by firing bullets from the US side of the border into Mexico.
In conclusion, the Supreme Court recommends trying not to get shot on the wrong side of the border.
Congress has repeatedly declined to authorize the award of damages against federal officials for injury inflicted outside U. S. borders. For example, recovery under 42 U. S. C. §1983 is available only to “citizen[s] of the United States or other person[s] within the jurisdiction thereof.” The Federal Tort Claims Act bars “[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country.” 28 U. S. C. §2680(k). And the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, note following 28 U. S. C. §1350, cannot be used by an alien to sue a United States officer. When Congress has provided compensation for injuries suffered by aliens outside the United States, it has done so by empowering Executive Branch officials to make payments under circumstances found to be appropriate. See, e.g., Foreign Claims Act, 10 U. S. C. §2734. Congress’s decision not to allow suit in these contexts further indicates that the Judiciary should not create a cause of action that extends across U. S. borders either.
The 5-4 majority says too much is at stake in terms of border security and international relations to come to any other conclusion. Since it’s not going to legislate from the bench, US government employees can kill people in other countries without fear of being held personally responsible for their rights violations until Congress steps in — something it’s obviously in no hurry to do.
The concurrence, written by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, is mainly annoyed the Court wasted time discussing a Congressionally-created escape hatch for federal officers and suggests tossing the Bivens doctrine altogether, further limiting lawsuits brought against federal officers/agents for Constitutional violations.
The dissent, however, points out this isn’t an extension of Bivens across the border. While Hernandez may have died in Mexico, the bullets were fired by an officer on United States soil.
Rogue U. S. officer conduct falls within a familiar, not a “new,” Bivens setting. Even if the setting could be characterized as “new,” plaintiffs lack recourse to alternative remedies, and no “special factors” counsel against a Bivens remedy. Neither U. S. foreign policy nor national security is in fact endangered by the litigation. Moreover, concerns attending the application of our law to conduct occurring abroad are not involved, for plaintiffs seek the application of U. S. law to conduct occurring inside our borders.
Even the government concurred a Bivens action could be brought against Agent Mesa if one key element had been satisfied.
The complaint states that Mesa engaged in that very conduct; it alleged, specifically, that Hernández was unarmed and posed no threat to Mesa or others. For these reasons, as Mesa acknowledged at oral argument, Hernández’s parents could have maintained a Bivens action had the bullet hit Hernández while he was running up or down the United States side of the embankment.
“Wrong place, wrong time” shouldn’t be the determining factor.
The only salient difference here: the fortuity that the bullet happened to strike Hernández on the Mexican side of the embankment. But Hernández’s location at the precise moment the bullet landed should not matter one whit.
Mesa’s allegedly unwarranted deployment of deadly force occurred on United States soil. It scarcely makes sense for a remedy trained on deterring rogue officer conduct to turn upon a happenstance subsequent to the conduct—a bullet landing in one half of a culvert, not the other.
If Bivens is neutered, there’s nothing left for plaintiffs. And the agency benefitting from this already does next to nothing to deter misconduct by its agents.
Regrettably, the death of Hernández is not an isolated incident. Cf. Rodriguez, 899 F. 3d, at 727 (complaint alleged that border agent fired 14 to 30 bullets across the border, killing a 16-year-old boy); Brief for Immigrant and Civil Rights Organizations as Amici Curiae 26–28 (describing various incidents of allegedly unconstitutional conduct by border and immigration officers); Brief for Border Network for Human Rights et al. as Amici Curiae 8–15 (listing individuals killed by border agents). One report reviewed over 800 complaints of alleged physical, verbal, or sexual abuse lodged against Border Patrol agents between 2009 and 2012; in 97% of the complaints resulting in formal decisions, no action was taken.
Zero accountability, blessed by two government branches. Here’s the third branch doing the same thing. The message it sends is this: if you’re going to kill a Mexican citizen, make sure they’re still in Mexico. And that message means the case coming up from the Ninth Circuit is going to give another Border Patrol agent a free pass on taking a foreigner’s life.
Filed Under: bivens, borders, cbp, jurisdiction, mexico, shooting, sovereignty, supreme court, us