Facts of the Case
Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca, a 15-year-old Mexican national, was playing with friends in the cement culvert between El Paso, Texas, and Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa, Jr. arrived on the scene and detained one of Hernández’s friends on U.S. territory. Hernández ran into Mexican territory and stood by a pillar near the culvert. From U.S. territory, Mesa fired at least two shots across the border at Hernández, one of which struck Hernández in the face and killed him.
Hernández’s parents filed a lawsuit against the officer and various other defendants alleging violation of their son’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed and part and reversed in part. The Fifth Circuit held that Hernández lacked Fourth Amendment rights, but his parents were entitled to a remedy under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) (holding an implied cause of action against federal government officials who have violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights), and the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity. On rehearing en banc, the full Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the parents’ claims, holding that they had failed to state a claim for a violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because it was not “clearly established” that it was unconstitutional for an officer on U.S. soil to shoot a Mexican national on Mexican soil.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in 2016 and reversed the en banc Fifth Circuit as to qualified immunity. The Court remanded the case so the lower court could determine whether the shooting violated Hernández’s Fourth Amendment rights and whether his parents could assert claims for damages under Bivens. On remand, the en banc Fifth Circuit once again affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint, holding that the excessive force claim was unlike any that had been decided previously and thus the plaintiffs were not entitled to any remedy under Bivens. In so holding, the Fifth Circuit applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Ziglar v. Abbasi, 582 U.S. __ (2017), in which the Court held that for a new type of claim to be cognizable under Bivens, there must be some special factor makes the judiciary better suited than the legislature to recognize such a claim.
Should federal courts recognize a damages claim under Bivens if plaintiffs plausibly allege that a rogue federal law enforcement officer violated clearly established Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights for which there is no alternative legal remedy?
The Court’s decision in Bivens does not extend to claims based on a cross-border shooting by a federal law enforcement officer. Justice Samuel Alito delivered the opinion for a 5-4 majority.
Bivens recognized an implied cause of action against federal government officials who have violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, and the Court has extended that holding to cover claims under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments as well. When considering whether to extend Bivens, a court must ask (1) whether the claim arises in a “new context” or involves a “new category of defendants,” and if so, then (2) whether there are “special factors” that weigh against extending Bivens to that type of claim.
In this case, the Court found the claims arise from a new and “significantly” different context—a cross-border shooting. As to the second part of the test, the Court also found “multiple” separation-of-powers factors counseling hesitation before extending Bivens: (1) to extend Bivens to this context implicates foreign relations, which is beyond the reach of the Court, (2) the risk of undermining border security and the system of military discipline created by statute and regulation, and (3) Congress has “repeatedly” declined to recognize a damages award against federal officials who cause injury outside U.S. borders. For these reasons, the Court declined to recognize a Bivens cause of action for the injury in this case.
Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined. Justice Thomas joined the majority in full but wrote separately to suggest that the Court discard Bivens and its progeny of cases.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined. Justice Ginsburg argued that conduct by a “rogue” federal officer is not a new context, but the very context contemplated in Bivens. Even if it were a new setting, Justice Ginsburg argued neither foreign policy nor national security would be endangered by recognizing a Bivens claim in this case, so no “special factors” counsel against recognizing the claim.
Further analysis of the oral argument available at Oral Argument 2.0: https://argument2.oyez.org/2019/hernandez-v-mesa/