Facts of the case
In 1965, six agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics forced their way into Webster Bivens’ home without a warrant and searched the premises. The agents handcuffed Bivens in front of his wife and children and arrested him on narcotics charges. Later, the agents interrogated Bivens and subjected him to a visual strip search. Bivens sued the agents for $15,000 in damages each for humiliation and mental suffering. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.
(1) Does violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure give rise to a federal claim for damages?
(2) Does governmental privilege extend to federal agents who clearly violate constitutional rights and act outside their authority?
Yes, No answer. Justice William J. Brennan Jr., writing for a 6-3 majority, reversed the Second Circuit and remanded. The Supreme Court held that Bivens does have a cause of action for damages arising from the federal agents Fourth Amendment violations. Bivens must provide proof of his injuries in order to recover. The Court did not reach the privilege question because the Court of Appeals did not consider the question. Justice John M. Harlan concurred in the judgment, writing that federal courts have the power to award damages for constitutional violations.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger dissented, arguing that the doctrine of separation of powers is better served by leaving the question to Congress. He also argued that the doctrine of suppressing evidence obtained in illegal searches is insufficient to deter law enforcement. Justice Hugo L. Black also dissented, arguing that Congress could create the cause of action Bivens stated, but has not, so the majority’s decision is an unconstitutional extension of judicial power. Justice Harry A. Blackmun dissented, supporting the idea that the question in this case is better left to Congress.