Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents
The following page contains references and citations from the Bivens case, heard in 1971. It is a well known case, whose decision upheld civil rights for those wrongfully “searched” by intelligence agents of the U.S. government. As you read the case, this landmark decision is clearly stated. This decision allows U.S. citizens the ability to sue intelligence agents for violations of their rights.
In this landmark case, it was decided that: “Respondents seek to treat the relationship between a citizen and a federal agent unconstitutionally exercising his authority as no different from the relationship between two private citizens. In so doing, they ignore the fact that power, once granted, does not disappear like a magic gift when it is wrongfully used.
An agent acting – albeit unconstitutionally – in the name of the United States possesses a far greater capacity for harm than an individual trespasser exercising no authority other than his own.” Cf. Amos v. United States, 255 U.S. 313, 317 (1921); United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326 (1941).
These decisions and writings are landmark and help victims of abuses of the intelligence agencies to sue those agencies for wrongdoing.
U.S. Supreme Court Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) 403 U.S. 388 Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit No. 301. Argued January 12, 1971 Decided June 21, 1971.
Petitioner’s complaint alleged that respondent agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, acting under color of federal authority, made a warrantless entry of his apartment, searched the apartment, and arrested him on narcotics charges. All of the acts were alleged to have been done without probable cause. Petitioner’s suit to recover damages from the agents was dismissed by the District Court on the alternative grounds (1) that it failed to state a federal cause of action and (2) that respondents were immune from suit by virtue of their official position. The court of Appeals affirmed on the first ground alone. Held:
- Petitioner’s complaint states a federal cause of action under the Fourth Amendment for which damages are recoverable upon proof of injuries resulting from the federal agents’ violation of that Amendment. Pp. 390-397.
- The Court does not reach the immunity question, which was not passed on by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 397-398.
409 F.2d 718, reversed and remanded.
Brennan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Douglas, Steward, White and Marshall, JJ., Joined. Harlan, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 398. Burger, C.J., post, p. 411, Black, J., post, p. 427, and Blackmun, J., post, p.430 filed dissenting opinions.
Mr. Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Fourth Amendment provides that:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. …”
In Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678 (1946), we reserved the question whether violation of that command by a federal agent under color of his authority gives rise to a cause of action for damages consequent upon his unconstitutional conduct. Today we hold that it does.
This case has its origin in an arrest and search carried out on the morning of November 26, 1965. Petitioner’s complaint alleged that on that day respondents, agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics acting under claim of federal authority, entered his apartment and arrested him for alleged narcotics violations. The agents manacled petitioner in front of his wife and children and threatened to arrest the entire family. They searched the apartment from stem to stern. Thereafter, petitioner was taken to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, where he was interrogated, booked and subjected to a visual strip search.
On July 7, 1967, petitioner brought suit in Federal District Court. In addition to the allegations above, his complaint asserted that the arrest and search were effected without a warrant, and that unreasonable force was employed in making the arrest;; fairly read, it alleges as well that the arrest was made without probable cause (Footnote 1) Petitioner claimed to have suffered great humiliation, embarrassment and mental suffering as a result of the agents’ unlawful conduct, and sought $15, 000 damages from each of them. The District Court, on respondents’ motion, dismissed the complaint on the ground, inter alia, that it failed to state a cause of action. (Footnote 2) 276 F. Supp. 12 (EDNY 1967). The Court of Appeals, one judge concurring specially, (Footnote 3) affirmed on that basis. 409 F.2d 718 (CA2 1969). We granted certiorari. 399 U.S. 905 (1970). We reverse.
Respondents do not argue that petitioner should be entirely without remedy for an unconstitutional invasion of his rights by federal agents. In respondents’ view, however the rights that petitioner asserts – primarily rights of privacy – are creations of state and not of federal law. Accordingly, they argue, petitioner may obtain money damages to redress invasion of these rights only by an action in tort, under state law, in the state courts. In this scheme the Fourth Amendment would serve merely to limit the extent to which the agents could defend the state law tort suit by asserting that their actions were a valid exercise of federal power: if the agents were shown to have violated the Fourth amendment, such a defense would be lost to them and they would stand before the state law merely as private individuals. Candidly admitting that it is the policy of the Department of Justice to remove all such suits from the state to the federal courts for decision, (Footnote 4) respondents nevertheless urge that we uphold dismissal of petitioner’s complaint in federal court, and remedy him to filing an action in the state courts in law.
We think that respondents’ thesis rests upon an unduly restrictive view of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searched and seizures by federal agents, a view that has consistently been rejected by this court. Respondents seek to treat the relationship between a citizen and a federal agent unconstitutionally exercising his authority as no different from the relationship between two private citizens. In so doing, they ignore the fact that power, once granted, does not disappear like a magic gift when it is wrongfully used. An agent acting – albeit unconstitutionally – in the name of the United States possesses a far greater capacity for harm than an individual trespasser exercising no authority other than his own. Cf. Amos v. United States, 255 U..S. 313, 317 (1921); United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326 (1941). Accordingly, as our cases make clear, the Fourth Amendment operates as a limitation upon the exercise of federal power regardless of whether the State in whose jurisdiction that power is exercised would prohibit or penalize the identical act if engaged in by a private citizen. It guarantees to citizens the absolute right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures carried out by virtue of federal authority.