The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday decided that the family of a Mexican teen who was fatally shot on Mexican soil by a Border Patrol agent does not have the right to sue for damages under the U.S. Constitution.
The 5-4 ruling was a blow for the family of Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca, who had been playing along Mexico’s border with the U.S. when agent Jesus Mesa shot him in the face in 2010.
Lawyers for the boy’s family argued that Mesa had violated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unjustified deadly force and that Hernández was denied his right to due process under the Fifth Amendment.
The 15-year-old had been playing a game with friends that involved running into a dry cement culvert separating the two countries along the Rio Grande and touching a tall fence on the U.S. side before running back. Mesa contended that the group had been throwing rocks at him and was trying to get into the U.S. illegally, but cellphone video indicated that was not the case, according to The Washington Post.
The conservative justices had previously expressed concern that allowing relatives of foreigners killed on foreign soil by U.S. law enforcement to then sue in U.S. court might have foreign policy and national security implications. During arguments in November, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed to the Department of Justice’s investigation into the incident, which determined that the agent had not violated Border Patrol policies. Mesa did not face criminal charges. Roberts also noted that the incident had been addressed through diplomatic communication between the U.S. and Mexico as another argument for the courts not to get involved.
“I thought the country was supposed to speak with one voice,” the chief justice said in November.
Attorney Steve Vladeck, representing Hernández’s family, countered that there must be a way for victims’ families to sue over the use of excessive force without undermining international relations.
Writing for the majority in Hernández v. Mesa, Justice Samuel Alito outlined the “legitimate and important interests that may be affected” by the case, namely, law enforcement standards in the U.S. and the sovereignty of Mexico.
“It is not our task to arbitrate between them,” Alito said.
“In the absence of judicial intervention, the United States and Mexico would attempt to reconcile their interests through diplomacy –– and that has occurred,” he wrote.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the possibility of civil litigation could help prevent abuse of force at the border. “Regrettably, the death of Hernández is not an isolated incident,” she wrote.