Robert Boule owns the Smuggler’s Inn, a charming Victorian Bed & Breakfast located right on the border of Washington State and Canada. But when Boule tried to protect a guest’s constitutional rights and his own constitutional rights, he was assaulted by a rogue Customs and Border Protection officer. This officer then sought revenge after Boule reported the assault and intrusion to his superiors. Now, after a years-long legal battle, the Supreme Court will consider whether the agent is immune from prosecution despite clear violations of Boule’s constitutional rights.
The Court will hear arguments in the case of Egbert v. Bowl on March 2, and a ruling will go a long way in determining whether or not there is a method to hold federal agents accountable when they violate the Constitution. A ruling in favor of Boule would protect the fundamental principle that no one is above the law, but a ruling against Boule would essentially grant federal agents absolute immunity from the consequences of their actions.
Boule’s story begins in 2014, when he welcomed a guest from Turkey. When this guest arrived, he was followed onto the property by a Customs and Border Protection officer named Erik Egbert. Officer Egbert suspected that Boule’s guest may have been in the country illegally and insisted on being allowed to interview the man, who was sitting in Boule’s car.
Boule informed Egbert that the guest had entered the United States legally from Kennedy International Airport and asked the agent to return either with a warrant or with a supervisor. Egbert then pushed Boule hard against the car, then grabbed him and pushed him to the ground, causing injuries to his back and hip that required medical attention. After interviewing the guest and confirming that the man was legally in the United States, Egbert left.
Rightly upset by the way he and his guest had been treated, Boule reported Egbert’s actions to Customs and Border Protection supervisors. That’s when things went from bad to worse. Egbert reported false accusations to the IRS, Social Security Administration, Washington Department of Licensing and the County Tax Assessor’s Office. The IRS then launched an audit. Over the years it took to complete the audit and confirm that all his taxes were properly paid, Boule paid over $5,000 to his accountant. (In a completely separate case, Boule recently pleaded the Canadian charges and apologized for allowing several hostel guests to cross the border in 2018 and 2019.)
Egbert’s actions clearly violated Boule’s right to free speech and the right to be free from unconstitutional search and seizure. So Boule did what many people in his position would do: he tried to sue Egbert for damages, under what is called a Bivens cause of action. The name comes from the 1971 Supreme Court decision Bivens c. Six unknown named agents which has established a cause of action to prosecute federal officials who clearly violate someone’s constitutional rights. Unfortunately, over the years, legal precedents have weakened Bivenscreating near-absolute “federal immunity” for federal officials.
The weakening of Bivens over the years, it has become harder for innocent Americans to seek justice when the person violating their rights happens to have a federal badge. Take the case of Kevin Byrd. A Department of Homeland Security agent pointed a loaded gun at Byrd and threatened to “blow his head off.” The officer even pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. He then used his badge to have Byrd arrested. Even though the DHS agent’s actions were so egregious that he was denied qualified immunity, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Byrd could not sue the agent , because he was a federal officer.
Hamdi Mohamud suffered a similar fate. As a child, she fled war-torn Somalia for a new life in the United States. Years later, as a teenager in Minnesota, she was arrested and spent two years in prison for something she didn’t do, all because a police officer from St. Paul (MP as a federal agent) has woven an intricate web of lies to trap her. . Again, the officer was denied qualified immunity. But, again, an appeals court ruled that Mohamud could not sue a federal MP. This time it was the 8th United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
Unlike Byrd and Mohamud’s claims, Boule’s claims were approved by a federal appeals court. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that his lawsuit for Egbert’s violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights can proceed. But Constable Egbert appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this year. Byrd and Mohamud are waiting to see what impact the court’s decision in the Boule case might have on theirs, which is still pending before the Supreme Court.
In America, no one should be above the law, but thanks to federal immunity, many federal officers are. It is absolutely vital that the Supreme Court reverse the recent trend of weakening Welcome.