403 U.S. 388 (1971), 301, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents

Docket NºNo. 301
Citation403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619
Party NameBivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents
Case DateJune 21, 1971
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 388

403 U.S. 388 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619



Six Unknown Named Agents

No. 301

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 1971

of Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Argued January 12, 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.


1. 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.

[91 S.Ct. 2001] 2. 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, STEWART, 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.

Page 389

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

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 acting 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, agents 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.1 Petitioner claimed to have suffered great humiliation,

Page 390

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.2 276 F.Supp. 12 (EDNY 1967). The Court of Appeals, one judge concurring specially,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

Page 391

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,4 respondents nevertheless urge that we uphold dismissal of petitioner's complaint in federal court and remit him to filing an action in the state courts in order that the case may properly be removed to the federal court for decision on the basis of state law.

We think that respondents' thesis rests upon an unduly restrictive view of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches 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

Page 392

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 of the United States the absolute right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures carried out by virtue of federal authority. And

where federally protected rights have been invaded, it has been the rule from the beginning that courts will be alert to adjust their remedies so as to grant the necessary relief.

Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. at 684 (footnote omitted); see Bemis Bros. Bag Co. v. United States, 289 U.S. 28, 36 (1933) (Cardozo, J.); The Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419, 433 (1922) (Holmes, J.).

First. Our cases have long since rejected the notion that the Fourth Amendment proscribes only such conduct as would, if engaged in by private persons, be condemned by state law. Thus, in Gambino v. United States, 275 U.S. 310 (1927), petitioners were convicted of conspiracy to violate the National [91 S.Ct. 2003] Prohibition Act on the basis of evidence seized by state police officers incident to petitioners' arrest by those officers solely for the purpose of enforcing federal law. Id. at 314. Notwithstanding the lack of probable cause for the arrest, id. at 313, it would have been permissible under state law if effected

Page 393

by private individuals.5 It appears, moreover, that the officers were under direction from the Governor to aid in the enforcement of federal law. Id. at 315-317. Accordingly, if the Fourth Amendment reached only to conduct impermissible under the law of the State, the Amendment would have had no application to the case. Yet this Court held the Fourth Amendment applicable and reversed petitioners' convictions as having been based upon evidence obtained through an unconstitutional search and seizure. Similarly, in Byars v. United States, 273 U.S. 28 (1927), the petitioner was convicted on the basis of evidence seized under a warrant issued, without probable cause under the Fourth Amendment, by a state court judge for a state law offense. At the invitation of state law enforcement officers, a federal prohibition agent participated in the search. This Court explicitly refused to inquire whether the warrant was "good under the state law . . . since in no event could it constitute the basis for a federal search and seizure." Id. at 29 (emphasis added).6 And our recent decisions regarding electronic surveillance have made it clear beyond peradventure that the Fourth Amendment is not tied to the

Page 394

niceties of local trespass laws. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41 (1967); Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961). In light of these cases, respondents' argument that the Fourth Amendment serves only as a limitation on federal defenses to a state law claim, and not as an independent limitation upon the exercise of federal power, must be rejected.

Second. The interests protected by state laws regulating trespass and the invasion of privacy, and those protected by the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, may be inconsistent or even hostile. Thus, we may bar the door against an unwelcome private intruder, or call the police if he persists in seeking entrance. The availability of such alternative means for the protection of privacy may lead the State to restrict imposition of liability for any consequent trespass. A private citizen, asserting no authority other than his own, will not normally be liable in trespass if he demands, and is granted, admission to another's house. See W. Prosser, The Law of Torts § 18, pp. 109-110 (3d ed.1964); 1 F. Harper & F. James, The Law of Torts § 1.11 (1956). But one who demands admission under a claim of federal authority stands in a far different [91 S.Ct. 2004] position. Cf. Amos v. United States, 255 U.S. 313, 317 (1921). The mere invocation of federal power by a federal law enforcement official will normally render futile any attempt to resist an unlawful entry or arrest by resort...

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