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Law School Case Brief

Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain - 542 U.S. 692, 124 S. Ct. 2739 (2004)


Federal courts exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.S. § 1350 should not recognize private claims under federal common law for violations of any international law norm with less definite content and acceptance among civilized nations than the historical paradigms familiar when § 1350 was enacted. And the determination whether a norm is sufficiently definite to support a cause of action should (and, indeed, inevitably must) involve an element of judgment about the practical consequences of making that cause available to litigants in the federal courts.


The Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") approved using petitioner Sosa and other Mexican nationals to abduct respondent Alvarez-Machain ("Alvarez"), also a Mexican national, from Mexico to stand trial in the United States for a DEA agent's torture and murder. Alvarez was acquitted, and after his acquittal he sued the United States for false arrest under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), which waives sovereign immunity in suits "for . . . personal injury . . . caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any [Government] employee while acting within the scope of his office or employment." Alvarez also sued Sosa for violating the law of nations under the Alien Tort Statute ("ATS"), a 1789 law giving district courts "original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations." The District Court dismissed the FTCA claim, but awarded Alvarez summary judgment and damages on the ATS claim. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ATS judgment, but reversed the dismissal of FTCA claim.


Could Alvarez's claims prevail?




The United States Supreme Court held that neither the FTCA nor the ATS provided a remedy for the Alvarez. Despite Alvarez's assertion that the government's control of the abduction in the United States precluded application of the FTCA exception for claims arising in a foreign country, the exception applied since the alleged harm occurred in Mexico, regardless of whether conduct in the United States was a proximate cause of the harm. Further, while the jurisdictional scope of the ATS extended to recognition of limited claims for violations of the law of nations, Alvarez's brief illegal detention prior to his transfer to lawful authorities did not amount to a violation of a well-defined norm of customary international law.

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