The Burger Court (1969–86)

Criminal Law and Procedure

In what decision did the Burger Court allow individuals to sue police officers for violations of constitutional rights?

The Court ruled in Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents (1971) that individuals could sue federal government officials for violation of their constitutional rights. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics invaded the apartment of Webster Bivens and arrested him in the presence of his wife and children. The agents allegedly threatened to arrest other members of the family. Agents searched his home for drugs. They then took him to a Brooklyn, New York, courthouse and subjected him to a strip search. They later released Bivens. He then filed a lawsuit, alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Bivens could sue the federal officials for violating his Fourth Amendment rights. In legal terms, the Court ruled that Bivens had an implied private right of action. It is called an implied private right of action because the text of the Fourth Amendment does not say that an individual can sue the government when federal officials unlawfully search his home. The case established the right of individuals to bring “Bivens actions” when federal officials violate their constitutional rights.


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