Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics

PETITIONER: Webster Bivens
RESPONDENT: Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics
LOCATION: Bivens Residence

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 403 US 388 (1971)
ARGUED: Jan 12, 1971
DECIDED: Jun 21, 1971
GRANTED: Jun 22, 1970

Jerome Feit - for the respondents
Stephen A. Grant - for the petitioner

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?

Media for Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1971 in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in number 301 Bivens against Six Unknown Agents.

Mr. Grant you may proceed.

Stephen A. Grant:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

25 years have elapsed since this Court in an opinion by Mr. Justice Black in Bell against Hood, left for another day the question whether violation of the Fourth Amendment gives rise to a federal claim for damages.

After long last that question is once again presented to the Court in this case.

Briefly the facts; the name of the case, Bivens against Six Unknown Federal Agents in a way tells a story.

Began in the early morning darkness in November five years ago, when six narcotics agents with guns drawn forced their way into Bivens' home in Bronx and preceded to conduct a thorough and apparently fruitful search.

They put handcuffs on him in front of his wife and children.

They took him away to be further questioned and booked as well as subjected to an extremely thorough humiliating search of his person.

At all times the agents acted without legal authority, without a search or arrest warrant.

After complaint against Bivens was dismissed, (Inaudible) to hire a lawyer, he decided to sue the agents for the outrage he'd suffered.

He knew the US Constitution guaranteed to each citizen the right to be secured against unreasonable search and seizure.

He knew that the federal courts had general jurisdiction over cases arising under the Constitution.

He must naively have thought he had a pretty good case.

With able assistance of the US Attorneys' Office, the District Court made a short trip to Bivens handwritten compliant.

No statute afforded a remedy against federal officers.

In any case, the defendants had acted in their performance of duty, compliant dismissed.

Leave to appeal in forma pauperis denied, and the District Court judge's certification that an appeal with frivolous.

Fortunately for Bivens, a distinguished judge in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, considered the appeal not so frivolous.

Leave was granted and I was assigned counsel.

This time the Department of Justice represented the defendants, arguing with the admirable dexterity that the Fourth Amendment was intended simply to bar the defensive privilege for an unreasonable search and seizure.

Would you keep your voice up a little Mr. Grant?

Stephen A. Grant:

Yes, Your Honor, but that the privilege is nevertheless available here because the defendants had acted within the outer perimeter of their line of duty.

The Circuit Panel was impressed by the lack of precedent affording a damage remedy and concluded that in enforcing the Fourth Amendment, was the matter for the Congress.

It recognized that the privilege question was properly raised.

The ruling that Bivens had no cause of action found it unnecessary to decide the issue.

The judgment dismissing the compliant was affirmed.

The first question, the first issue is whether violation of the constitutional right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure gives rise to a federal claim for damages.

The answer turns first in the intent of the framers; second, on the adequacy of existing remedies to fulfill that intent and finally on the role of the court's in enforcing rights secured by the Constitution.

First the intent of the framers; the right of the people to be secured in their person's house, his papers and affects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.