WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against a man who had sued a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent for excessive force, wading into the divisive issue of liability and accountability for federal police officers.
The dispute between the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn, located feet from the northern border, and the customs agent came before the justices at a time when lower courts and lawmakers have wrestled with the question of when law enforcement may be sued. In the case of federal officers, courts have allowed such suits in limited circumstances
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a 6-3 majority, said that it is generally the job of Congress to allow Americans to sue federal police for excessive force violations under the Fourth Amendment, not the courts
Congress is better positioned to create remedies in the border-security context, and the government already has provided alternative remedies that protect plaintiffs,” Thomas wrote, a reference to an internal U.S. Customs grievance procedure.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the court’s ruling on the Fourth Amendment claim, asserting that it “contravenes precedent and will strip many more individuals who suffer injuries at the hands of other federal officers…of an important remedy.” Sotomayor agreed with the court’s ruling against the inn owner’s separate First Amendment claim.
The criticism is similar to concerns raised about qualified immunity for local police because it opens a debate about how much liability police should face for jobs that often involve split-second decisions. Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that protects officers from liability for civil rights violations in many circumstances.