Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain Case Brief

Facts of the case

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) special agent was kidnapped and murdered by a Mexican drug cartel in 1985. After an investigation, the DEA concluded that Humberto Alvarez-Machain had participated in the murder. A warrant for his arrest was issued by a federal district court. The DEA, however, was unable to convince Mexico to extradite Alvarez-Machain, so they hired several Mexican nationals to capture him and bring him back to the United States. His subsequent trial went all the way to the Supreme Court, which found that the government could try a person who had been forcibly abducted, but that the abduction itself might violate international and provide grounds for a civil suit. When the case went back to the district court for trial, Alvarez-Machain was found not guilty for lack of evidence.Alvarez-Machain then filed a group of civil suits in federal court against the United States and the Mexican nationals who had captured him under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which allows the federal government to be sued on tort claims, and the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which permits suits against foreign citizens in American courts. The government argued that the FTCA applied only to claims arising from actions that took place in the United States and therefore did not cover Alvarez-Machain’s case because the arrest took place in Mexico. Further, the government and the Mexican nationals argued that the ATS gave federal courts jurisdiction to hear tort claims against foreign citizens, but did not allow private individuals to bring those suits.The federal district court disagreed with the government’s contention that the FCTA claim did not apply, finding that plan to capture Alvarez-Machain was developed on U.S. soil and therefore covered. However, the court then ruled that the DEA had acted lawfully when they arrested Alvarez-Machain and was therefore not liable. On the ATS claims, the court rejected the argument that private individuals could not bring suit under the Act. The court found that Jose Francisco Sosa, one of the Mexican nationals who kidnapped Alvarez- Machain, had violated international law and was therefore liable under the ATS.On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s FTCA decision, ruling that the DEA could not authorize a citizen’s arrest of Alvarez-Machain in another country and was therefore liable. The appeals court did, however, affirm the lower court’s finding on the ATS claim, upholding the judgment against Sosa.

Why is the case important?

Alvarez-Machain (P) argued he was detained against his will by bounty hunter and brought to the United States.


Does the abduction of a foreign national amount to an ?€?arbitrary arrest?€ within the meaning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?


No. The abduction of a foreign national does not amount to an ?€?arbitrary arrest?€ within the meaning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Obligations as a matter of international law is not imposed by the Declaration and while the Covenant binds the United States as a matter of international law, the U.S. ratified it on the express understanding that it was not self-executing, and therefore did not itself create obligations that were enforceable in the federal courts.


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.

  • Advocates: Paul D. Clement argued the cause for Petitioner United States Carter G. Phillips argued the cause for Petitioner Sosa Paul L. Hoffman argued the cause for Respondents argued the cause for the United States, as petitioner in No. 03-485, and respondent under this Court’s Rule 12.6 in support of petitioner in No. 03-339
  • Petitioner: Jose Francisco Sosa
  • Respondent: Humberto Alvarez-Machain, et al.
  • DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
  • Location: –
Citation: 542 US 692 (2004)
Granted: Dec 1, 2003
Argued: Mar 30, 2004
Decided: Jun 29, 2004
Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain Case Brief