Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain

PETITIONER:Jose Francisco Sosa
RESPONDENT:Humberto Alvarez-Machain, et al.
LOCATION:Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 03-339
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 542 US 692 (2004)
GRANTED: Dec 01, 2003
ARGUED: Mar 30, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 29, 2004

Carter G. Phillips – argued the cause for Petitioner Sosa
Paul D. Clement – argued the cause for Petitioner United States
Paul L. Hoffman – argued the cause for Respondents

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.


Does the Alien Tort Statute permit private individuals to bring suit against foreign citizens for crimes committed in other countries in violation of the law of nations or treaties of the United States? May an individual bring suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act for a false arrest that was planned in the United States but carried out in a foreign country?

Media for Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 30, 2004 in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 29, 2004 in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-339, Sosa versus Alvarez-Machain and a companion case will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

These cases come to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In 1990, a federal grand jury indicted the respondent Alvarez, a Mexican national, to his role in the torture of an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

After failing to negotiate, Alvarez’s extradition from Mexico, DEA official hatched a plan for his abduction by Mexican nationals and his forceable removable of the United States.

The plan was followed and Alvarez was brought to this country for trial.

This Court found that jurisdiction was proper not withstanding the circumstances of his capture, but at the ensuing trial the District Court granted Alvarez’s motion for a judgment of acquittal.

He then began the civil actions which are before us now seeking damages for his abduction from the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act and from another Mexican national, Sosa, under the Alien Tort Statute.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit determined that Alvarez had a claim for relief under both statutes and a divided en banc court agreed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we reverse as to withholding.

The basis for Alvarez’s claim under the Tort Claims Act is his seizure in one-day detention in Mexico constituted a tortuous false arrest.

Although the Tort Claims Act exempts the United States from liability for “any claim arising in a foreign country” the Ninth Circuit avoided application of this foreign country exception by relying on the so-called headquarters doctrine according to which torts even if committed abroad maybe actionable under the Tort Claims Act if they were planned and orchestrated domestically.

We reject that analysis and reverse on that basis.

We have previously held the language and legislative history of the foreign country exception demonstrate that Congress meant to avoid exposing the United States to Tort liability based on the application of foreign law.

At the time the Tort Claims Act was passed, the courts would have applied foreign law in any tort case where the injury or harm occurred in a foreign country.

We thus, read the exception to apply when the injury complained or took place abroad.

Applying the headquarters doctrine in a case under the Tort Claims Act is a judge made attempt to avoid the consequences of the statutory directive and we reject it.

Alvarez, as I said, also sued Sosa under the Alien Tort Statute which was originally passed as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

This Act vests Federal District Courts with jurisdiction over tort suits by aliens alleging violation of the laws of nations.

And although it was effectively dormant for about 200 years, the statute has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance since the Second Circuit’s Filartiga case in 1980.

The parties and the friends of the Court take vastly disparate positions on the historic and present significance of the statute.

With Sosa and the United States on one side arguing that it is no more than a jurisdictional grant unable to support a cause of action in the absence of further legislation, and with Alvarez believing that the Act itself is the source of a substantive cause of action.

Although we agree with Sosa that the statute is jurisdictional, we recognize that at the time of its enactment, a modest set of private claims under the law of nations would have been actionable as part of the general common law.

Taking our cue from history, we believe that the Alien Tort Statute is still properly understood to furnish jurisdiction for a narrow band of international law acclaims.

We say narrow because there are many reasons for judicial caution in recognizing such claims.

These reasons include a reluctance on the part of the Federal Courts to make common law, judicial hesitation to infer causes of action where they are not expressly provided by statute, and a healthy skepticism about the judicial role in foreign affairs.

The stringent statute set out in the opinion is fatal to Alvarez’s claim here.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas have joined; Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which Justice Breyer has joined; and Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.