When can you sue a federal agent who violates your constitutional rights? Which constitutional rights can you sue about? A federal statute allows you to sue state and local officers for violating your constitutional rights, but there is no federal law that does the same for federal officers. In 1971, in a case called Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Supreme Court held that a cause of action for damages against federal officers could be inferred from constitutional provisions. But in the 50 years since, the Court has struggled to explain how, or even if, a Bivens cause of action applies in different cases.

In 2014, Erik Egbert, a Customs and Border Patrol Agent, went to the Smugglers Inn, which sits at the U.S.-Canada border, and approached a car carrying a guest from Turkey. The inn’s owner, Robert Boule, asked Egbert to leave. Egbert refused to do so and pushed Boule to the ground. After Boule complained to Egbert’s supervisors, Egbert suggested to the IRS that it investigate Boule. In Egbert v. Boule, argued on March 2, the Court continued to grapple with Bivens questions, including whether Bivens applies to First Amendment retaliation and whether federal officers engaged in immigration-related functions are subject to Bivens suits for violations of Fourth Amendment rights.


— Anya Bidwell, Attorney and Elfie Gallun Fellow in Freedom and the Constitution, Institute for Justice

— Erin Hawley, Senior Legal Fellow, Independent Women’s Law Center

— Moderator: Hon. David Stras, Judge, United States Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit

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