A leading state civil rights organization says Wednesday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that limits, when people can sue federal law enforcement agents for rights violations, could have an adverse impact in Maine.

Zachary Heiden, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the ruling is cause for concern in Maine and other states with international borders, where federal agents are authorized to check a person’s citizenship status within 100 miles of the border.

“The reality of this ruling is that it will make it harder to enforce the Constitution,” Heiden said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “This was a ruling about whether a federal agent can be held accountable for violating a person’s rights under the Constitution.”

A majority of conservative justices, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, sided with the government in a case involving the owner of an inn located in Blaine, Washington, a community that straddles the United States’ border with Canada.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, wrote the dissenting opinion.

The court ruled that Robert Boule, the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn, can’t sue a Border Patrol agent over a confrontation at his inn during which, Boule said, the agent shoved him and then retaliated against him when he complained that the agent had used excessive force. All nine of the court’s justices agreed that Boule shouldn’t be able to pursue his retaliation claims, but the court’s three liberal justices said he should have been able to pursue his excessive force claims, saying the facts of the case were very similar to a case the court decided in 1971.


Wednesday’s ruling is considered the latest in a line of cases narrowing the public’s ability to sue federal officers for rights violations.

Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion, emphasized a point of contention that has surfaced a few times in Maine, where border patrol agents have conducted warrantless searches – called citizenship checks – at major transportation hubs.

In 2018, the ACLU challenged the U.S. Customs and Border Protection after agents stopped and questioned passengers boarding a bus at the Bangor Transportation Center. Immigration inspections at transportation hubs are not a new practice.

The U.S. Border Patrol, which is part of Customs and Border Protection, has the authority to conduct citizenship checks without a warrant within 100 miles of the nation’s land and coastal borders. That authority includes the entire state of Maine.

Ten other states – Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont – lie entirely or almost entirely in that 100-mile zone.

Sotomayor wrote that absent intervention by Congress, federal agents “are now absolutely immunized from liability for damages, no matter how egregious the misconduct or resultant injury. That will preclude redress for injuries resulting from constitutional violations by Customs and Border Patrol’s nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, including those engaged in ordinary law enforcement activities like traffic stops, far removed from the border.”


“This is no hypothetical: certain CBP agents exercise broad authority to make warrantless arrests and search vehicles up to 100 miles away from the border,” Sotomayor said in her dissenting opinion.

No one on the Concord Coach bus in Bangor who was questioned by Border Patrol agents was arrested in 2018. Still, a passenger alerted the ACLU of Maine. Heiden said it was the first time the organization had heard of Border Patrol agents inspecting a bus in Maine.

The ACLU has not been made aware of any additional complaints about citizenship checks at bus stops, at least not in recent memory, Heiden said.

“We don’t want to live in a society where the government is always demanding that we show our papers,” Heiden told the Press Herald in 2018.

In his opinion, Thomas wrote that it should be left up to Congress to remedy disputes involving federal agents and citizens.

“Cases have made clear that, in all but the unusual circumstances, creating the ability to sue is a job for Congress,” Thomas wrote.

Heiden said the Supreme Court ruling will make it harder for organizations like the ACLU to defend people who believe federal agents have violated their rights.

“It will make it harder for civil rights advocates to represent victims, but it’s not going to stop us,” Heiden said.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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