FTCA Administrative Complaints Challenging Abuses from CBP Roving Patrols

FTCA Administrative Complaints Challenging Abuses from CBP Roving Patrols

When conducting enforcement operations within the United States, CBP regularly sends its officers on “roving patrols.” These patrols, conducted many miles away from the U.S. Border, often lead to the detention and interrogation of U.S. citizens without reasonable suspicion of any crime. Many of the U.S. citizens detained by CBP were targeted because of their ethnicity, and CBP officers have subjected citizens to verbal and physical abuse while checking their citizenship status. Collected here are examples of complaints that the ACLU has filed against CBP to address the continued violation of U.S. citizens’ rights at the hands of CBP.

2013 Office of the Inspector General Complaint

On October 9, 2013, the ACLU of Arizona and the ACLU Border Litigation Project  submitted an administrative complaint to the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) and DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) concerning unlawful conduct of Border Patrol agents during roving patrols in Southern Arizona.  The complaint was submitted on behalf of 5 U.S. citizens who detail very serious incidents of verbal or physical abuse when their vehicles were stopped without reasonable suspicion by Border Patrol agents.  In at least two of the incidents, young children were traveling in the vehicles.

The complaint calls for the investigation of these incidents; a comprehensive review of complaints involving CBP roving patrols to determine whether Border Patrol agents are complying with their obligations under agency guidelines, the U.S. Constitution, and international law; and recommendations from OIG and CRCL regarding significant changes in CBP training, oversight, and accountability mechanisms necessary to address the problems and prevent further abuses.

2014 Office of the Inspector General Complaint

On January 15, 2014, the ACLU of Arizona and the ACLU Border Litigation Project submitted an administrative complaint to DHS Office of Inspector General and DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties concerning abuses committed by Border Patrol agents at interior vehicle checkpoints in southern Arizona.  The complaint was submitted on behalf of 15 U.S. citizens, aged 6-69 years old, and detailed 12 incidents in which their rights were violated when they were stopped at 6 checkpoints over a period of a year and a half.

The complaint calls for the investigation of all of the incidents identified; a comprehensive review of all complaints regarding Border Patrol checkpoints over the past five years; a thorough review of Border Patrol checkpoint policies and practices to ensure that operations are in fact limited to briefly verifying citizenship and that agents are receiving guidance regarding the limits of their authority; and a review of all policies and procedures related to service canines, in light of widespread reports of “false alerts” by the dogs.

2015 Federal Tort Claims Act Administrative Complaint

On May 19, 2015, the ACLU of Arizona filed two claims with the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) on behalf of an Arizona woman seeking monetary damages for egregious and repeated rights violations by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

The first claim arises out of an incident on May 21, 2013, in which Border Patrol agents stopped Clarisa Christiansen and her two young children without cause while the family was driving home from school.  After Ms. Christiansen demanded an explanation, the agents threatened to deploy a Taser and then threatened to cut her out of her seatbelt with a knife.  The agents subsequently slashed a rear tire and left Ms. Christiansen and her children stranded on a hot desert road with a flat tire and no explanation.

In October 2013, the ACLU submitted a complaint to DHS oversight agencies on behalf of Ms. Christiansen and four others who were subjected to unlawful “roving patrol” stops by Border Patrol.  More than a year and a half later, those agencies have yet to respond.

The second claim was filed in response to years of unauthorized and unlawful entries by Border Patrol agents onto the family’s private property west of Tucson.  On a weekly basis, Border Patrol helicopters buzz the family’s home at extremely low altitudes, causing dwellings to shake, and often disrupting the family’s sleep with deafening noise and bright lights.  Agents have also repeatedly entered the Christiansens’ property on foot and on motorized vehicles, despite numerous posted “No Trespassing” signs.

Federal law currently grants Border Patrol authority to enter onto private property within twenty-five miles of the border “to prevent illegal entry.”  Agents are further empowered to conduct interior enforcement within 100 miles of any national boundary, an area that encompasses most of the U.S. population.  As in Ms. Christiansen’s case, agents routinely ignore the legal limits of their authority in the course of these operations.

Counsel: ACLU of Arizona

Maria Fernanda Rico Andrade v. United States of America, et al.

Maria Fernanda Rico Andrade v. United States of America, et al., No  2:15-cv-00103 (S.D. Texas, filed Feb. 27, 2015)

On November 3, 2011, Gerardo Lozano Rico, an unarmed Mexican national, was driving along a rural road in Texas when his car was pulled over by two United States Border Patrol agents. After being pulled over, several passengers in Mr. Lozano’s car began to flee and the two Border Patrol officers attempted to apprehend them. After one agent smashed the driver’s side window of the car with a baton, Mr. Lozano attempted to drive away from them. In response, the two agents fired approximately 15 shots into the vehicle, killing Mr. Lozano. The two agents who fired the shots claimed that they had fired in self-defense because the vehicle was coming in their direction.

In June 2014, Maria Fernanda Rico Andrade, Mr. Lozano’s mother, filed an administrative complaint against the Border Patrol, which was denied in August 2014. On February 27, 2015, Ms. Rico filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Texas. The complaint alleges an unconstitutionally excessive use of force and a pattern and practice of border patrol agents who, by placing themselves in front of moving vehicles, intentionally expose themselves to additional risk which creates a justification for the use of deadly force. The complaint also alleges the fatal shots fired by the agents were from the side and the rear, occurring after the car had already passed them and making the decision to use force unreasonable.

On October 6, 2015, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. On March 27, 2017, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment.

On July 12, 2017, the court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss on Plaintiff’s FTCA and Bivens claims and struck as moot Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court ruled that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the FTCA claims and that the statute of limitations on the FTCA and Bivens claims had run.

In August 2017, Plaintiff moved for reconsideration of the decision, which Defendants opposed. On September 18, 2017, the court denied Plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.

Counsel: Robert C. Hilliard | Singleton Law Firm, APC; Hilliard Munoz Gonzales, LLP

Contact: Robert C. Hilliard | bobh@hmglawfirm.com | (361) 882-1612

Perez, C.Y. v. United States

Perez, C.Y. v. United States, 3:13-cv-01417-WQH (S.D. Cal., Fourth Amended Complaint, filed Sep. 22, 2016); 17-56610 (9th Cir., filed Oct. 19, 2017) 

This case challenges CBP and U.S. Border Patrol’s excessive use of force pursuant to the agency’s “Rocking Policy,” which permits the use of lethal force against persons throwing rocks and other objects in the direction of Border Patrol agents. Maria Del Socorro Quintero Perez filed a lawsuit against the United States, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), the U.S. Border Patrol (“USBP”), and various Border Patrol supervisors and agents in their individual capacities for the wrongful death of her husband, Jesus Alfredo Yañez Reyes.

On June 21, 2011, Yañez and Jose Ibarra-Murietta crossed the border from Mexico into the United States. Soon thereafter they were apprehended by Border Patrol agents Chad Michael Nelson and Dorian Diaz. While Yañez managed to escape back to the Mexican side of the border through a small hole in a fence, Agent Nelson tackled Murietta to the ground and began to strike him. Yañez climbed a tree that leaned against the Mexican side of the fence near the area where Agent Nelson was beating Murietta.

The events that followed are in dispute. Agents Nelson and Diaz allege that, during Nelson’s struggle with Murietta, Yañez threw one or two rocks in the direction of Agent Nelson, neither of which hit him. They further allege that Yañez threw a nail-studded board that struck Agent Nelson in the head. Murietta, meanwhile, asserts that Yañez never threw anything at Agent Nelson, but instead attempted to stop Nelson’s beating of Murietta by threatening to record the scene on his cellphone.

In both versions of the event, Diaz then instructed Yañez to come down from the fence. Without any further warning or provocation from Yañez, Diaz shot Yañez directly in the head, killing him. Yañez fell out of the tree on the southern side of the fence, and neither agent attempted to render any assistance to him. Agent Nelson sustained only minor injuries, none of which originated from rocks or a nail-studded board.

Plaintiffs argue that, regardless of which version of events is accurate, the agents unlawfully used excessive lethal force against Yañez. Both agents admitted that neither of them gave Yañez any verbal command or warning to stop throwing objects. Furthermore, Yañez’s alleged conduct did not create a risk of death or serious injury; the rocks were small, they did not hit the agents, and the allegedly thrown nail-studded board did not cause Agent Nelson any injury. There was no evidence that Yañez was about to throw any other objects in the moments before the shooting.

Yañez’s death was not an isolated event. According to a detailed report by an expert witness in the case, Thomas Frazier, Border Patrol agents along the U.S-Mexico border have regularly used lethal force against persons of perceived Hispanic or Mexican nationality. Plaintiffs allege that Border Patrol supervisors and other various agents within DHS acquiesced and tacitly approved of the excessive use of force against persons crossing the border. Between January 2010 and October 2012, Border Patrol agents responded to an alleged thrown rock with deadly force at least twenty-nine times.

Plaintiffs claim that the Rocking Policy violates international peremptory norms against extrajudicial killings, bilateral treaties, and domestic law, including the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and a federal regulation that prohibits the police from using deadly force in the absence of a significant risk of death or serious physical injury. Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, reasonable attorney fees, and other reasonable relief.

On February 22, 2016, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss and/or to strike portions of the Plaintiffs’ complaint, seeking to strike all causes of action alleged by the Plaintiffs other than their Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against Agents Nelson and Diaz and then- Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher. In late March 2016, the judge granted Defendants’ motion in part and denied it in part.

Following the District Court’s decision, on September 22, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a fourth amended complaint. On October 20, 2016, Defendants again moved to dismiss the complaint.

On March 3, 2017, the Court granted in part Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss the Fifth Amendment Claims. In addition, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ FTCA claims. On April 1, 2017, the remaining two individual defendants filed a motion for summary judgment with respect to the surviving Fourth Amendment claims. On September 21, 2017, the District Court entered an order granting Defendants’ motion, declining to find a Bivens remedy for Plaintiffs’ alleged Fourth Amendment violation and also concluding that qualified immunity barred suit. Plaintiffs have filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit.

The parties completed appeal briefing in May 2018, and the case was argued in November 2018. In May 2019, the court withdrew the case from submission pending a decision from the Supreme Court in Hernandez v. Mesa, a case that addressed the availability of a Bivens remedy for victims of cross-border shootings. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Hernandez limiting th’e availability of Bivens, 140 S.Ct. 735 (2020), the parties submitted supplemental briefing. As of June 2021, the appeal is still pending.

Counsel: Singleton Law Firm, APC; Hilliard Munoz Gonzales, LLP; Hilliard & Shadowen, LLP

Contact: Brody McBride | brody@geraldsingleton.com  | (760) 697 1330

Gallegos v. United States of America, et al

Gallegos v. United States of America, et al., No. 5:14-cv-00136 (S.D. Tex., Amended Complaint filed June 23, 2015)

This case challenges the actions of two U.S. Border Patrol agents, who shot dead an unarmed man on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2012. Nora Lam Gallegos, on behalf of herself and her minor children, brought a lawsuit against the United States and various Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agents in their individual capacities for the wrongful death of her husband, Guillermo Arevalo Pedraz (“Arevalo”).

On September 3, 2012, Arevalo and his family were celebrating his birthday in a park in Mexico bordering the Rio Grande when a U.S. Border Patrol airboat pulled beside a man swimming in the river. The two agents, Matthew Lambrecht and Christopher Boatwright, were responding to a report that three people had swum over to the Texas border. Witnesses allege that the man in the river was swimming back to Mexico in order to evade capture. One of the Border Patrol agents on the boat attempted to catch the person swimming in the river using a long boat hook. A crowd gathered on the Mexican shore as onlookers shouted at the two agents to leave the man alone. Arevalo ran toward the crowd. The agents in the airboat later reported that about 20 people on the Mexican shore began throwing rocks at the boat, but Mexican witnesses vehemently denied this. One of the agents on the boat aimed and fired at least five shots at the crowd, which included children. Two bullets hit Arevalo. He was rushed to a hospital but was pronounced dead after an unsuccessful attempt to revive him.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas alleging that the agents unlawfully used excessive force in shooting Arevalo. Multiple eyewitnesses directly contradict Border Patrol’s assertion that Arevalo was throwing rocks before he was killed. Plaintiffs assert that, even assuming arguendo that Arevalo was throwing rocks, the agents’ response was grossly excessive; a cellphone video of the incident demonstrates that when the agents opened fire, they were beyond the distance at which any thrown rock could pose a risk of death or serious bodily injury, and in any case, the agents could have shielded themselves by moving the boat further from the Mexican shore.

Plaintiffs allege that the agents were acting pursuant to the Border Patrol’s “Rocking Policy,” which permits the use of lethal force against persons throwing rocks and other objects in the direction of Border Patrol agents. Plaintiffs also assert that, despite condemnation from the Mexican government and international human rights organizations, high-ranking DHS and CBP officials have acquiesced to the Rocking Policy.

Plaintiffs allege that the Rocking Policy violates various international treaties as well Mexican sovereignty by permitting Border Patrol agents to fire their weapons into Mexico’s sovereign territory. They also claim that the Rocking Policy violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, reasonable attorney fees, and other reasonable relief.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Hernandez v. Mesa, 140 S. Ct. 735 (2020), the parties agreed that Plaintiffs’ Bivens claims should be dismissed. On May 22, 2020, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ remaining claims under the Alien Tort Statute and the Federal Tort Claims Act. On July 6, 2020, Plaintiffs opposed Defendants’ motion to dismiss.

As of June 2021, a decision has not been issued by the court.

Counsel: Robert C. Hilliard | Singleton Law Firm, APC; Hilliard Munoz Gonzales, LLP

Contact: Robert C. Hilliard | bobh@hmglawfirm.com | (361) 882-1612

Salem v. USA, et al.

Salem v. USA, et al., No. 5:15-cv-02091-JGB-SP (C.D. Cal., filed Oct. 9, 2015)

Mr. Salem brought this damages case against the United States, the Los Angeles Fire Department, and unknown CBP officers. Mr. Salem is a U.S. citizen who is also a citizen of Egypt. An accomplished playwright, 75 year old Salem was at the Los Angeles airport to begin his annual trip to Egypt, where he taught a literature class as an adjunct professor at the University of Cairo. He passed through security without incident, handed over his boarding pass and entered the passenger bridge to board his plane. At that point he was pulled over by an officer he believes was with CBP, who asked to see his passport. When he asked why he had been singled out, he was immediately surrounded by three other officers who forcibly grabbed both of his arms. They searched his carry-on luggage and, after finding nothing objectionable, forcibly escorted him to an interrogation room. There he was questioned for several hours, during which time the officers forced his arm behind his back, breaking it in the process. After about 4 hours of questioning, he was released without being charged. He was in great pain, and a bone in his arm was visibly displaced.

Mr. Salem’s suit includes Bivens claims under the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure and use of excessive force) and the Fifth Amendment (equal protection). It also includes FTCA claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence.

Defendant United States of America filed an answer to the amended complaint on January 18, 2017. Defendant City of Los Angeles filed an answer to the amended complaint on February 9, 2017. Individual Defendants also filed answers to the amended complaint on February 2, 2017 and March 07, 2017. The parties have agreed to stipulations for the Plaintiff’s inspection of the premises where Mr. Salem’s detention took place, and the Court accordingly entered a protective order regarding the Plaintiff’s entry and inspection of the premises on March 15, 2017.

On April 21, 2017, the individual federal Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which Plaintiff opposed. On June 13, 2017, the district court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The parties entered into a settlement agreement on September 12, 2017, in which Defendant USA agreed to pay Plaintiff $45,000 under the FTCA in exchange for dismissing all other claims.

Counsel: Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, CA l Law Office of Shafiel A. Karim

Contact: Marwa Rifahie (Civil Rights Managing Attorney) | mrifahie@cair.com

Rodriguez v. Swartz

Rodriguez v. Swartz, No. 14-02251 (D. Ariz., filed Sept. 8, 2014)

This civil rights case involves the brazen and lawless killing of a sixteen-year-old boy, J.A., by U.S. Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz. On the night of October 10, 2012, J.A., a Mexican national, was peacefully walking along a street in his hometown of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The street on which he was walking, Calle Internacional, runs parallel to the border fence. At approximately 11:30 pm, Agent Swartz, standing on the U.S. side of the fence, opened fire. An autopsy report shows that J.A. was fatally hit with ten bullets. At the time of the shooting, the agents and/or officers were not under threat by J.A. or anyone else standing near him — much less in immediate danger of deadly or serious bodily harm. J.A. death was senseless and unjustified. Plaintiff Araceli Rodriguez filed this Bivens action for monetary damages for the killing of her youngest son, alleging claims under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

On July 10, 2015, the District Court granted in part and denied in part Defendant’s motion to dismiss. Disagreeing with the en banc Fifth Circuit, Chief Judge Raner C. Collins held that Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment claim could proceed and that Agent Swartz was not entitled to qualified immunity.

In mid-September, 2015, the Department of Justice charged Swartz criminally with second degree murder. Following several postponements, the Swartz criminal trial began in Tucson on March 22, 2018.  The jury found Swartz not guilty of second degree murder on April 23, 2018, after hearing several weeks of testimony from Nogales Police Department officers, Border Patrol agents, forensics experts, and Swartz himself.  The same jury failed to arrive at a unanimous decision as to the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter, leaving open the door for a future criminal prosecution of the lower-level offense.  On May 12, 2018 the U.S. Attorney Office in Tucson announced that it would re-try Swartz on the lesser charge, and he was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter on November 21, 2018.

In the civil case, Defendant filed a Notice of Appeal with the Ninth Circuit. Briefing was completed as of June 1, 2016.  On October 21, 2016, the parties argued the case at the Ninth Circuit. The panel indicated its intent to hold its decision pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of Hernandez v. United States, which was decided on June 26, 2017.

On August 7, 2018, the Ninth Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Kleinfeld with a dissent from Judge M. Smith, affirmed the District Court’s decision denying Defendant qualified immunity, reasoning that “J.A. had a Fourth Amendment right to be free from the unreasonable use of deadly force by an American agent acting on American soil, even though the agent’s bullets hit him in Mexico.” The Court extended a Bivens remedy, finding that Plaintiff had no other adequate alternative remedy and that no “special factors” counseled hesitation in extending such a remedy. The Court did not reach the Fifth Amendment arguments but stated that, in the event the Fourth Amendment does not apply because J.A. was in Mexico, the Fifth Amendment’s “shock the conscience” test may still apply.

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Contact: Mitra Ebadolahi | ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties | mebadolahi@aclusandiego.org

The Estate of Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas v. United States

The Estate of Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas v. United States
No. 11-cv-522 L (DHB) (S.D. Cal., Third Amended Complaint filed Mar. 23, 2012)

This case challenges CBP and U.S. Border Patrol’s excessive use of force.  Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas died of a heart attack on May 28, 2010 near the San Ysidro Port of Entry after agents working for the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection beat him and shot him repeatedly with a Taser. Cell phone videos taken by witnesses show Hernandez-Rojas, a Mexican national and long-time San Diego resident, on the ground surrounded by agents and calling out for help.  He was 42 years old.

In this federal lawsuit brought under Bivens, the Federal Torts Claims Act, and the Alien Tort Claims Act, Hernandez-Rojas’s family alleges that his First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated when agents beat him after he asked for help, using excessive force. They also allege that their father’s death has deprived his children of their 14th Amendment due process right to associate with their father.

Eight agents and four supervisors are named as defendants in the lawsuit. They have claimed that using force against Hernandez-Rojas was justified because he posed a threat to the officers.

In September 2014, the district court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  In his order, U.S. District Court Judge M. James Lorenz wrote: “The sheer number of officers available at the scene demonstrates rather strongly that there was no objectively reasonable threat to the safety of any one other than Anastasio.” That decision is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit; Plaintiffs have filed a motion in the district court to declare that appeal frivolous. On December 31, 2015, the district court denied that motion, and the matter is stayed pending the resolution of Defendants’ appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

On November 6, 2015 the Department of Justice announced that it would not criminally prosecute the agents involved in his death, a decision that angered his family and border-rights advocates.

On March 30, 2017, the Court issued an order approving a $1 million settlement, to be dispersed among Mr. Hernandez-Rojas’s five children.

Counsel: Iredale & Yoo, APC

Contact: Julia Yoo | (619) 233-1525

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Castro Romo v. United States of America

Castro Romo v. United States of America, No. 4:12-041 (D. Ariz. Feb. 6, 2015)

On February 6, 2015, the district court awarded the plaintiff, Jesus Castro Romo, $497,943 as damages for injuries he suffered when he was shot by a Border Patrol agent. Following a five day trial, the court found that the Border Patrol agent, who was on horseback, caught up with Mr. Castro and others as they were walking through the Arizona desert. Mr. Castro ran from the agent, who pursued him. Upon catching up to him, the agent threatened Castro, yelled obscenities at him, hit him with the horse’s reins, had the horse poke him from behind, and ultimately shot Castro in his lower back. The court credited Mr. Castro’s version of events and rejected as less credible the agent’s version that Castro was about to throw a rock at him—both because the agent changed his story over time and also because the agent previously had been convicted of taking a bribe while working for the Border Patrol.

Based upon these facts, the court concluded that the agent had committed an intentional battery under Arizona law; that his use of a gun constituted the use of deadly force; that he was not justified in using deadly force; and that the unresolved question of whether Castro had been operating as a “coyote” did not change the fact that it was unreasonable for the agent to use deadly force under these circumstances. The court considered Castro’s action in running from the agent and reduced the damage award by 10%.

The decision sets out in detail the evidence supporting the various types of damages and the court’s calculations of these damages, including past and future medical and psychiatric expenses, economic damages, and pain and suffering. On March 5, 2015, Mr. Castro filed a motion requesting that the court amend its findings of fact and conclusions of law and enter a new judgment increasing the amount of damages awarded. On July 21, 2015, the court agreed to recalculate Mr. Castro’s damages for future pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life to account for the effect of inflation. The court increased the original damages award by nearly $20,000 to a new total of $516, 320.82.

Counsel: Risner and Graham

Contact: William J. Risner | (520) 622-7494

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

Hernandez v. United States of America, Nos. 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 October 11, 2016, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case. 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.

On remand from the Supreme Court following its decision in Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 U.S. 1843 (2017), the Fifth Circuit en banc held that a cross-border shooting presented a “new context” for which federal courts do not have the authority to find an implied damages action under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the FBI, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). As a result, the Fifth Circuit dismissed plaintiffs’ Bivens claims. On May 28, 2019, the Supreme Court granted certiorari for a second time.

On February 25, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a decision holding that Bivens was unavailable applying the two-part test outlined in Abbasi. The court first determined that the Hernandez family’s Bivens claims arose in a new context. Turning to the second step of the test, the court found “multiple, related factors” counseling hesitation about extending Bivens. The Hernandez family’s case implicates foreign relations, the court reasoned, because of the “legitimate and important interests” of both the United States and Mexico “that may be affected by the way in which this matter is handled.” “It is not our task,” the court said, “to arbitrate between them.” The court also held that the case implicates the “conduct of agents positioned at the border,” which has a “clear and strong connection to national security.” Writing in dissent, Justice Ginsburg argued that holding a rogue, low-ranking officer accountable for killing a teenager would not undermine U.S. diplomacy or national security.

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ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties v. DHS et al. (PERF Report FOIA)

ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties v. US Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection, No.  3:14-cv-01272-BTM-JMA (S.D. Cal., filed May 22, 2014)

In 2013, following intense public pressure and a letter from sixteen members of Congress calling upon Customs & Border Protection (CBP) to address numerous incidents involving excessive force, CBP undertook a comprehensive review of its use of force policies and practices. As part of this review, CBP commissioned a report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a non-partisan law enforcement think tank based in Washington, DC. PERF completed its review and issued a 23-page report that was highly critical of CBP’s use of force policies and practices. CBP refused to release the report or disclose PERF’s recommendations, and indicated that it would not adopt those recommendations.

In February 2014, the ACLU of San Diego’s Border Litigation Project filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with CBP seeking immediate disclosure of the report. CBP failed to respond to the request, forcing the ACLU to file suit May 22, 2014 to compel disclosure.

The following week, CBP finally released the full report, along with a revised Use of Force Policy Handbook that reflected many of PERF’s recommendations. The parties then stipulated to dismissal of the case on June 19, 2014. The case is now closed.

Counsel: ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties

Contact: Mitra Ebadolahi | ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties | mebadolahi@aclusandiego.org