Hernandez v. United States of America, sub nom. Hernandez v. Mesa

Hernandez v. United States of America, Nos. 11-50792, 12-50217, 12-50301 (5th Cir.), sub. nomHernandez v. Mesa, No. 15-118 (U.S.)

On June 7, 2010, Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, a fifteen-year-old Mexican national, was playing with a group of friends on the Mexican side of the border near the Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso, Texas.  The boy and his friends were playing a game in which they ran up the incline of a cement culvert, touched the fence separating the US and Mexico and then ran back down the incline.  While they were playing, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa, Jr. stopped one of Hernandez’s friends, and Hernandez retreated and observed from beneath the pillars of the Paso del Norte Bridge (on the Mexico side).  Agent Mesa, standing on U.S. soil, fired at least two gun shots from within the country.  One of the bullets hit the boy in the face and killed him.

The boy’s parents sued, raising claims against the United States, Agent Mesa, and unknown federal employees. The district court dismissed the claims for various reasons.  On June 30, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court in part and affirmed in part.  Although the Court affirmed parts of the district court’s decision, significantly, it ruled that the boys’ parents could bring a Fifth Amendment claim against Agent Mesa.  In so holding, the court determined that the child had a Fifth Amendment right to be free from actions that “shock the conscience.” Both the United States and Agent Mesa asked the Fifth Circuit to rehear (reconsider) the court’s decision.

On November 5, 2014, the court granted en banc rehearing and vacated its earlier decision.  On January 21, 2015, the en banc panel heard oral argument. On April 24, 2015, the Fifth Circuit issued an en banc opinion. On the question of the violation of Sergio’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, the court held that Plaintiffs could not assert a Fourth Amendment claim because Sergio had no significant voluntary connection to the United States and because was physically in Mexico when Agent Mesa shot him. The court further held that Plaintiffs could not assert a Fifth Amendment claim because, at the time of the shooting, no case law reasonably warned Agent Mesa that the prohibition on excessive force applied in this situation.

On July 23, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court. Briefing on the petition was completed on March 18, 2016, and included a brief filed by the Solicitor General (at the request of the Court).  The Court rescheduled the conference date for the case on June 13, 2016. On October 11, 2016, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case. The questions that the court will address are “(1) Whether a formalist or functionalist analysis governs the extraterritorial application of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unjustified deadly force, as applied to a cross-border shooting of an unarmed Mexican citizen in an enclosed area controlled by the United States; (2) whether qualified immunity may be granted or denied based on facts – such as the victim’s legal status – unknown to the officer at the time of the incident; and (3) whether the claim in this case may be asserted under Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents.”

On February 21, 2017, this case was argued in front of the Supreme Court. On June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Fifth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings. In its opinion, the Court first addressed the Bivens claim. It determined that a recently decided Supreme Court decision—Ziglar v. Abbasi, which laid out special factors which counsel “hesitation” in applying a Bivens remedy—would inform the analysis of the Bivens question. The Court remanded to give the parties “the opportunity to brief and argue [Abbasi’s] significance” in answering that question. Second, the Court declined to resolve the Fourth Amendment issue before the Court of Appeals could weigh in under the guidance provided by Abbasi. Finally, with respect to the Fifth Amendment claims regarding Mesa’s qualified immunity, the Court held the Fifth Circuit erred when it granted qualified immunity because Hernandez was a noncitizen “who had no significant voluntary connection to…the United States.” Since that fact was not known to Mesa at the time he shot Hernandez, extending qualified immunity was not appropriate. The Court further declined to address the government’s arguments that Mesa was entitled to qualified immunity regardless of his uncertainty about Hernandez’s nationality at the time of the shooting, and that petitioners’ claim was not cognizable at all under the Fifth Amendment.

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