US top court orders rehearing of cross-border shooting case
The US Supreme Court gave new hope Monday to the family of a Mexican boy shot on the American frontier, ordering a lower court to reconsider their lawsuit against the border patrol agent who killed him.
Justices said the appeals court made a significant legal error when it ruled that the family of Sergio Hernandez Guereca had no constitutional right to sue the agent who killed him in American courts.
The case has played out amid tensions between the United States and Mexico over the border and President Donald Trump's pledge to crack down on illegal immigration, which he blames for crime and drug smuggling.
Hernandez, 15, was shot dead on June 7, 2010 as he and three friends played in the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande that separates the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez from its Texan neighbor El Paso.
The youths were racing up the concrete embankment to touch the fence on the US side of the border, and racing back down, when Hernandez was shot in the head by border patrol agent Jesus Mesa. Mesa maintained the youths threw rocks at him as he tried to make them stop the game.
- 'Not a free killing zone' -
After an investigation, US authorities said Mesa had not broken the law.
An American citizen nonetheless could sue him for rights violations -- in this case, excessive use of deadly force by a federal officer.
But courts rejected the Hernandez family suit because the relatives are not US nationals and the boy was shot on the Mexican side of the border.
If they were granted the right to sue, one argument went, then American soldiers, including those manipulating an attack drone from far away, could conceivably be sued for civilian deaths in war.
Lawyers for Hernandez's family argued that the situation of the often vague US border was different, and that Mesa had no way to know if Hernandez was Mexican or American -- so that he could not claim immunity from a lawsuit on the basis of the victim's nationality.
"Facts an officer learns after the incident ends -- whether those facts would support granting immunity or denying it -- are not relevant," the court said.
The Hernandez family's attorney, Bob Hilliard, expressed confidence in his argument before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the boy was protected against deadly force by the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment, even though he was not a US citizen.
The Court today reminded this country and all other nations that our Constitution means what it says. The rule of law governs. Power given to law enforcement by the Constitution will be checked and reviewed, and, if excessive force is used, there will be constitutional consequences.
We look forward to going back and arguing to the Fifth Circuit that Fourth Amendment protections apply to Sergio and others like him.
"The Court today reminded this country and all other nations that our Constitution means what it says. The rule of law governs. Power given to law enforcement by the Constitution will be checked and reviewed, and, if excessive force is used, there will be constitutional consequences," Hilliard said in a statement.
"Border patrol agents must abide by the very constitution they took an oath to uphold. When they draw their weapons and aim across our border, they now know that this is not a free killing zone, where lawlessness is unchecked and shootings are not investigated."
The Supreme Court declined to rule on the broader case overall, ordering the lower appeals court to reconsider the case against certain legal points that were not weighed the first time around.
That includes the Supreme Court's own ruling a week ago that six illegal immigrants detained after the September 11 attacks, and later freed, did not have the right to sue individuals of the former Bush administration for rights violations.
© 2017 AFP