Supreme courts limit lawsuits against civil servants for violations of rights

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday restricted when people can sue federal officials for violating their rights, siding with the government in a case involving the owner of a notorious inn on the US-Canada border.

The judges said Smuggler’s Inn owner Robert Boule cannot sue a Border Patrol agent over a confrontation at his inn in which he said the agent pushed him and then retaliated against him when he complained, the man used excessive force. It’s the latest in a series of cases limiting the public’s ability to sue federal officials for rights violations.

“Congress is better positioned to create remedies related to border security, and the government has already provided alternative remedies that protect plaintiffs like Boule.” Judge Clarence Thomas wrote.

Thomas wrote that the “Court’s cases have made it clear that the establishment of capacity in all but the most unusual circumstances is a matter for Congress.”


The Supreme Court said in 1971 that people could sue federal officials for violating their constitutional rights. But for the past 40 years, the court has consistently refused to expand the types of cases, called Bivens suits after the 1971 case, in which a person could sue. Most recently, in a 2020 case, judges told the parents of a teenager who was killed in Mexico by a US Border Patrol agent who fired across the border that they couldn’t complain. Thomas said the original 1971 case would likely have a different outcome today, but the current case does not require a reconsideration by the court.

All nine of the court’s justices agreed that Boule should not pursue his claims for retaliation, but the court’s three liberal justices said he should be able to pursue his claims of excessive force and said the facts of the case corresponded to the The court ruled in a very similar case in 1971.


Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court’s liberal judges that the majority decision “breaks precedent and will deprive many more individuals who have been injured by other federal officials … of an important remedy.” Citing the court’s conservative majority, which has been strengthened to six under the Trump administration, Sotomayor said that “a troubled and newly constituted court sees fit to reframe the standard to bar appeals in even more cases.” .

In a tweet, Athul Acharya, the group’s chief executive, said Public AccountabilityHe said the “short version” of the case was: “Federal agents can violate almost any fundamental right with impunity, and you have no remedy.”

Greg Boos, an attorney for Boule, called the decision a “remedial work” that he said was fraught with factual misrepresentations and distortions that were “incredibly disappointing.” “This leaves us without any protection from border police within our constitutional rights,” Boos said.


The setting of the case before the judges was unique. Officials said the Smuggler’s Inn in Blaine, Washington, is a magnet for illegal border crossings and a place where drug seizures have been made. Boule’s property actually extends into Canada and a series of rocks on the property mark the international boundary. There is no fence. Thomas included a picture of the boundary stones in the report to show how easily a person can cross the US-Canada border on the property.

Rooms at the inn are named after famous smugglers and other notorious figures, and a black SUV that the inn uses to transport customers to the property bears the personalized “SMUGLER” license plate. Boule makes money by picking up guests, who sometimes travel long distances, and charging them for lodging “even if they never intended to stay,” Thomas said. He described the property’s amenities by including a photo of bunk beds in one room. Boule’s attorney said this space will be used to host footballers who stay at the property when traveling for tournaments and email reviews praising the inn.


Boule has also served as a confidential informant for the US government, and redacted portions of documents filed in the Supreme Court case. Boule’s attorneys said he had a “longstanding cooperative relationship with the US government” and had alerted officials to individuals of interest.

In March 2014, Boule told border guard Erik Egbert that a guest who arrived at the inn was from Turkey. Egbert said he was suspicious the guest would be traveling over 7,500 miles to stay at “a seedy bed and breakfast” and when the guest arrived he went to the property to do some research. Boule asked him to leave, but Egbert reportedly threw him to the ground, injuring him. After the guest was determined to be in the country legally, Egbert left. The guest eventually entered Canada illegally that same night.

Boule notified Egbert’s supervisors and filed an administrative complaint about the rough treatment, and Boule says Egbert retaliated by making reports about him and his business to various state and federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service. But no agency has found Boule to have done anything wrong. Thomas wrote that the Border Patrol took no action against Egbert after a year-long investigation. A document filed in the case shows that the inquiry concluded that Egbert’s removal from his position was justified because he did not accommodate investigators. But Egbert continues to work for the border guard, said Boule’s lawyer.


Boule sued, saying Egbert violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force and his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him. A federal court ruled in Egbert’s favor, but an appeals court overturned the decision and Egbert appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Associated Press was one of nearly three dozen media organizations to join a brief calling on judges to side with Boule, arguing that journalists’ ability to seek federal officials damages for violations of the first to sue the constitutional amendment, for which freedom of the press is important.

The case is Egpert v. Boule, 21-147.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Supreme courts limit lawsuits against civil servants for violations of rights

Sarah Y. Kim

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