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Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics - 403 U.S. 388, 91 S. Ct. 1999 (1971)


A violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by a federal agent acting under color of his authority gives rise to a cause of action for damages consequent upon his unconstitutional conduct.


An action for damages was instituted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York against federal narcotics agents by plaintiff Webster Bivens, seeking recovery for humiliation and mental suffering resulting from the agents' conduct, under claim of federal authority, in connection with an arrest and search relating to alleged narcotics violations by Bivens. Bivens claimed that the agents, acting without a warrant and without probable cause, entered his apartment,  unreasonable force in effecting the arrest, searched the apartment, and later interrogated and subjected him to a visual strip search. The district court dismissed the complaint on the ground that it failed to state a cause of action. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed on that basis.


Was Bivens' right to damages available in state court only?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed and remanded, holding that a federal remedy for an unlawful search and arrest allegedly in violation of the Fourth Amendment was not limited to conduct condemned by state law. It held that the relationship between federal agents, acting unconstitutionally, and a private citizen differed from that between private citizens. Because agents had a far greater capacity for harm, the Court reasoned, the Fourth Amendment limited the exercise of federal power. The Court explained that the Amendment did not proscribe only those acts engaged in by private citizens that were condemned by state law, that the interests of state laws regulating invasion of privacy and the Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches could be inconsistent, and that the awarding of damages to a petitioner following a violation of the Amendment by federal agents was a remedy normally available in the federal courts.

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