by Tina LaRitz*

Plain­tiffs who suf­fer con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions at the hands of fed­er­al offi­cers typ­i­cal­ly claim dam­ages reme­dies through fed­er­al statutes. But when statu­to­ry pro­tec­tion is unavail­able or inap­plic­a­ble, the judi­cial­ly-cre­at­ed Bivens doc­trine can offer cer­tain plain­tiffs a path to redress. A “Bivens claim” asks a fed­er­al court to pro­vide a dam­ages rem­e­dy to per­sons suf­fer­ing injury from a con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tion by a fed­er­al offi­cer when there is no statu­to­ry recog­ni­tion of such a right.1 In addi­tion to enabling plain­tiffs’ vin­di­ca­tion of their con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, Bivens is intend­ed to dis­suade fed­er­al offi­cers from com­mit­ting con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions in the first place.2 Yet the Supreme Court has only rec­og­nized a Bivens dam­ages rem­e­dy in three nar­row cir­cum­stances: unlaw­ful search­es and seizures under the Fourth Amend­ment,3 cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment under the Eighth Amend­ment,4 and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion under the Fifth Amend­ment.5 This Con­tri­bu­tion argues that the Bivens doc­trine must be pre­served as a rem­e­dy pur­suable through the fed­er­al courts for aggriev­ed plaintiffs.

The Supreme Court estab­lished the Bivens doc­trine in 1971, in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed­er­al Bureau of Nar­cotics. The plain­tiff, Bivens, claimed dam­ages when fed­er­al agents vio­lat­ed his Fourth Amend­ment rights through an unrea­son­able search.6 In sus­tain­ing Bivens’ claim, the Court estab­lished a dam­ages rem­e­dy, cre­at­ing a fed­er­al cause of action to rem­e­dy harms from uncon­sti­tu­tion­al Fourth Amend­ment search­es com­mit­ted by fed­er­al offi­cers.7 How­ev­er, since Bivens, the Court has increas­ing­ly empha­sized the sep­a­ra­tions of pow­ers con­cerns that Bivens actions can evoke, giv­en that pro­vid­ing dam­ages reme­dies typ­i­cal­ly falls with­in the scope of the leg­is­la­ture.8

More than fifty years lat­er, in June 2022, the Supreme Court issued a deci­sion9 that many legal com­men­tors called the “end” of Bivens.10 In Egbert v. Boule, a 6–3 major­i­ty held that the Court lacked the author­i­ty under Bivens to extend a cause of action to a plain­tiff who suf­fered unrea­son­able use of force by a fed­er­al offi­cer in vio­la­tion of the Fourth Amend­ment.11 While the Court denied cer­tio­rari on the ques­tion of over­rul­ing Bivens alto­geth­er, Jus­tice Thomas stat­ed in his major­i­ty opin­ion that “in all but the most unusu­al cir­cum­stances, pre­scrib­ing a cause of action is a job for Con­gress, not the courts.”12 Jus­tice Gor­such went a step fur­ther in his con­cur­rence, argu­ing that the Court should reject all invi­ta­tions to cre­ate caus­es of action and return the pow­er exclu­sive­ly to Con­gress.13 The nar­row scope cre­at­ed by this deci­sion ren­ders Bivens an increas­ing­ly flim­sy shield against gov­ern­ment overreach.

Nonethe­less, Boule pre­serves a nar­row path for plain­tiffs to con­tin­ue to bring Bivens claims in the “tra­di­tion­al” Bivens con­text: unrea­son­able search­es that vio­late the Fourth Amend­ment. Yet the con­tours of this area are not entire­ly clear: since Bivens involved a phys­i­cal search, would an elec­tron­ic search be award­ed the same treat­ment? Although the Supreme Court has not con­sid­ered this ques­tion, two cir­cuit courts have. The Sev­enth Cir­cuit allowed a Bivens claim to pro­ceed in a case involv­ing an elec­tron­ic search through covert sur­veil­lance equip­ment.14 On the oth­er hand, the Fourth Cir­cuit has held that elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance presents “wild­ly dif­fer­ent facts” than those in Bivens and denied a Bivens action.15 

Elec­tron­ic search­es should fall with­in the rec­og­nized Bivens con­text because the under­ly­ing pol­i­cy ratio­nale remains the same — rem­e­dy­ing harm suf­fered by indi­vid­u­als at the hands of fed­er­al offi­cers and encour­ag­ing law enforce­ment com­pli­ance with con­sti­tu­tion­al duties. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of elec­tron­ic meth­ods of inves­ti­ga­tion today affirms the impor­tance of Bivens as “instruc­tion and guid­ance” for fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cers con­duct­ing search­es16 — and the neces­si­ty of a rem­e­dy when these lim­its are breached.

Since the Bivens deci­sion, fed­er­al courts have con­sid­ered the applic­a­bil­i­ty of the doc­trine to a vari­ety of con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions, defen­dants, and fac­tu­al sce­nar­ios. The Court extend­ed the doc­trine to two new cir­cum­stances in the decade fol­low­ing Bivens. First, it deemed a Bivens action appro­pri­ate for a Fifth Amend­ment claim of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion against a Con­gress­man for fir­ing his female sec­re­tary.17 It then extend­ed the doc­trine to an Eighth Amend­ment cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment claim against prison offi­cials for fail­ing to treat an inmate’s asth­ma.18 These deci­sions affirmed not only that Bivens was applic­a­ble to oth­er con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, but also that the pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty for enforc­ing those rights rest­ed with the courts.19

Today, courts ana­lyze Bivens claims under the frame­work laid out in Ziglar v. Abbasi. In Ziglar, undoc­u­ment­ed nonci­t­i­zens who were detained fol­low­ing the ter­ror­ist attacks of Sep­tem­ber 11th sought dam­ages for var­i­ous con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions relat­ed to their con­di­tions of con­fine­ment.20 The Supreme Court decid­ed, first, that the case bore lit­tle resem­blance to the Court’s three pri­or Bivens actions (Bivens, Davis, and Carl­son); in oth­er words, it pre­sent­ed a “new con­text.”21 It then put forth numer­ous fac­tors to assess when deter­min­ing whether a con­text is fac­tu­al­ly and legal­ly sim­i­lar to a rec­og­nized Bivens con­text, including:

[T]he rank of the offi­cers involved; the con­sti­tu­tion­al right at issue; the gen­er­al­i­ty or speci­fici­ty of the offi­cial action; the extent of judi­cial guid­ance as to how an offi­cer should respond to the prob­lem or emer­gency to be con­front­ed; the statu­to­ry or oth­er legal man­date under which the offi­cer was oper­at­ing; the risk of dis­rup­tive intru­sion by the Judi­cia­ry into the func­tion­ing of oth­er branch­es; or the pres­ence of poten­tial spe­cial fac­tors that pre­vi­ous Bivens cas­es did not con­sid­er.22

In oth­er words, the ana­lyz­ing court should aim to uncov­er whether it is more prop­er for the courts or Con­gress to pro­vide a rem­e­dy. Ulti­mate­ly, the Ziglar deci­sion made clear to low­er courts that extend­ing Bivens is now a “dis­fa­vored” judi­cial activ­i­ty.23

The Court in Ziglar fur­ther con­sid­ered whether there were “spe­cial fac­tors” that coun­seled hes­i­ta­tion against extend­ing the Bivens doc­trine.24 After find­ing that var­i­ous fac­tors sug­gest­ed cre­at­ing a cause of action was best left to the leg­is­la­ture, the Court declined to extend Bivens.25 Three years lat­er, the Court applied Ziglar’s frame­work in Her­nan­dez v. Mesa.26 In that case, the plain­tiff alleged that a U.S. Bor­der Patrol agent vio­lat­ed the Fourth and Fifth Amend­ment rights of a 15-year-old Mex­i­can nation­al, whom the agent shot in a cross-bor­der inci­dent.27 The Court again denied a Bivens rem­e­dy, find­ing that Bivens’ hold­ing did not extend to claims based on cross-bor­der shoot­ings.28 More­over, it stat­ed that extend­ing Bivens to this new con­text would intrude upon the Exec­u­tive Branch’s abil­i­ty to enforce the law29 and the Leg­isla­tive Branch’s pre­rog­a­tive to grant a rem­e­dy through statu­to­ry law.30 This ratio­nale exem­pli­fies the lim­it­ing nature of the Ziglar frame­work: unless a case aris­es with the same fac­tu­al and legal cir­cum­stances as those in the three estab­lished Bivens con­texts, the Supreme Court is very unlike­ly to step in, and will jus­ti­fy its def­er­ence through cit­ing sep­a­ra­tion of powers.

Still, there is a long his­to­ry of apply­ing Bivens to var­i­ous types of Fourth Amend­ment search­es out­side the fac­tu­al set­ting of Bivens itself.31 Indeed, although Bivens claims have been cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denied for oth­er con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions, the Supreme Court has upheld their via­bil­i­ty in the Fourth Amend­ment con­text.32 Even forty years ago, the Ninth Cir­cuit found that claims of war­rant­less wire­tap­ping “fall[s] direct­ly with­in the cov­er­age of Bivens.”33 This approach res­onates sound­ly with the pur­pos­es of Bivens. The fact that a search was achieved through an elec­tron­ic rather than phys­i­cal inva­sion need not change the nature of the harm to the plain­tiff that Bivens seeks to rem­e­dy. Fur­ther­more, the opaque nature of elec­tron­ic search­es bol­sters the argu­ment that an ex ante deter­rent, like Bivens, is nec­es­sary to increase fed­er­al offi­cers’ com­pli­ance with con­sti­tu­tion­al stan­dards and ensure the Exec­u­tive Branch is not whol­ly unchecked in its admin­is­tra­tion of the law. And, last­ly, Con­gress has not leg­is­lat­ed exten­sive­ly on elec­tron­ic search­es of inves­tiga­tive tar­gets34 — per­haps under­stand­ably, as the rapid evo­lu­tion of elec­tron­ic search meth­ods may make this area less suit­able for leg­isla­tive inter­ven­tion. Con­se­quent­ly, the judi­cia­ry is the appro­pri­ate branch to rem­e­dy these vio­la­tions and apply Bivens to the spe­cif­ic cas­es Con­gress has not yet pro­tect­ed — and if Con­gress dis­agrees, they are free to leg­is­late otherwise.

Although the Boule deci­sion unde­ni­ably adds anoth­er lim­i­ta­tion on the already-dimin­ished Bivens doc­trine, it may not be as seis­mic as those seek­ing to retain Bivens fear. Prece­dent demon­strates that Bivens claims are well-estab­lished with­in the Fourth Amend­ment unrea­son­able search con­text. Cir­cuit courts are cer­tain­ly with­in their author­i­ty to allow plain­tiffs to rely on Bivens in sim­i­lar con­texts when the search at issue hap­pens to be elec­tron­ic. We live in a ubiq­ui­tous­ly dig­i­tal age, and fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cers have adapt­ed by incor­po­rat­ing new and evolv­ing tech­nol­o­gy into their oper­a­tions. While this has, unsur­pris­ing­ly, raised ques­tions about how to reg­u­late such changes, the fun­da­men­tal nature of the Constitution’s pro­tec­tions of lib­er­ty, free­dom, and jus­tice remain unchanged. Fed­er­al courts would be pru­dent to apply these long­stand­ing prin­ci­ples as they inevitably adapt their jurispru­dence to our tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven society.


* Tina LaRitz is a J.D. Can­di­date (2023) at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law. This Con­tri­bu­tion is a com­men­tary on the prob­lem at the Nation­al Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty Moot Court Com­pe­ti­tion host­ed by UCLA School of Law. The ques­tion pre­sent­ed was whether, when a plain­tiff plau­si­bly alleges that a fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cer vio­lat­ed their Fourth Amend­ment rights by using a Net­work Inves­tiga­tive Tech­nique (“NIT”) and there is no alter­na­tive legal rem­e­dy for such a vio­la­tion, the fed­er­al courts can and should rec­og­nize a dam­ages claim under the Bivens doc­trine. This Con­tri­bu­tion presents an argu­ment for the preser­va­tion of the Bivens doc­trine, and the views expressed here­in do not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the views of the author.

1. Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Nar­cotics, 403 U.S. 388, 397 (1971).

2. See Bivens, 403 U.S. at 410 (“For peo­ple in Bivens’ shoes, it is dam­ages or noth­ing.”) (Har­lan, J., con­cur­ring in the judg­ment); Corr. Serv. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 70 (2001) (“The pur­pose of Bivens is to deter indi­vid­ual fed­er­al offi­cers from com­mit­ting con­sti­tu­tion­al violations.”).

3. See Bivens, 403 U.S. at 397 (award­ing dam­ages for injuries plain­tiff suf­fered as a result of fed­er­al agents’ vio­la­tion of the 4th Amendment).

4. See Carl­son v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 25 (1980) (hold­ing an inmate could pro­ceed in their Bivens claim con­cern­ing a prison official’s fail­ure to treat their asth­ma, in vio­la­tion of the Eighth Amendment).

5. See Davis v. Pass­man, 442 U.S. 228, 249–50 (1979) (hold­ing a Congressman’s fir­ing of a female sec­re­tary con­sti­tut­ed gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in vio­la­tion of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and was deserv­ing of a Bivens rem­e­dy).

6. Bivens, 403 U.S. at 390–91.

7. Id.; see also Malesko, 534 U.S. at (explain­ing that the Court’s author­i­ty to imply a new con­sti­tu­tion­al tort derives from its juris­dic­tion to decide cas­es “aris­ing under the Con­sti­tu­tion, laws, or treaties of the Unit­ed States” (quot­ing 28 U.S.C. § 1331)).

8. See, e.g., Green, 446 U.S. at 29 (“[T]he Court’s will­ing­ness to infer fed­er­al caus­es of action that can­not be found in the Con­sti­tu­tion or in a statute den­i­grates the doc­trine of sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers and hard­ly com­ports with a ratio­nal sys­tem of jus­tice.”) (Pow­ell, J., con­cur­ring in the judg­ment); Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1857 (2017) (“When a par­ty seeks to assert an implied cause of action under the Con­sti­tu­tion itself . . . sep­a­ra­tion-of-pow­ers prin­ci­ples are or should be cen­tral to the analysis.”).

9. Egbert v. Boule, 142 S. Ct. 1793 (2022).

10. See, e.g., Dan McCue, Cert Peti­tion Deci­sions on Tues­day Could Spell the True End of Bivens Prece­dent, The Well News (June 17, 2022), https://www.thewellnews.com/supreme-court/cert-petition-decisions-on-tuesday-could-spell-the-true-end-of-bivens-precedent/; Howard M. Wasser­man, Court con­stricts, even if it does not quite elim­i­nate, dam­ages actions under Bivens, SCO­TUS­blog (June 8, 2022, 9:42 PM), https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/06/court-constricts-even-if-it-does-not-quite-eliminate-damages-actions-under-bivens/.

11. Boule, 142 S. Ct. at 1800.

12. Id.

13. Id. at 1810.

14. Gustafson v. Adkins, 803 F.3d 883, 886 (7th Cir. 2015) (allow­ing a Bivens claim to pro­ceed when a gov­ern­ment official’s instal­la­tion of covert video sur­veil­lance equip­ment was alleged to be an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al search).

15. Attkisson v. Hold­er, 925 F.3d 606, 621, 628 (4th Cir. 2019).

16. Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1857.

17. See Davis, 442 U.S. at 249–50.

18. See Green, 446 U.S. at 25.

19. 3 Civ­il Rights Actions P 14.01 (2021).

20. Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1852–53.

21. Id. at 1859–60.

22. Id. at 1860.

23. Id. at 1857.

24. Id.

25. Id. at 1860.

26. 140 S. Ct. 735 (2020).

27. Id. at 740.

28. Id. at 749–50.

29. Id. at 744.

30. Id. at 749.

31. See, e.g., Gib­son v. Unit­ed States, 781 F.2d 1334, 1341 (9th Cir. 1986) (reviv­ing a dis­missed Bivens claim under the Fourth Amend­ment for con­tin­u­al unau­tho­rized inter­cep­tion of the plaintiff’s phone calls); Jacobs v. Alam, 915 F.3d 1028, 1038–39 (6th Cir. 2019) (pro­vid­ing a Bivens rem­e­dy for Fourth Amend­ment unrea­son­able search when fed­er­al agents shot the plain­tiff and ran­sacked his home); Ioane v. Hodges, 939 F.3d 945, 952 (9th Cir. 2018) (extend­ing a Bivens rem­e­dy to Fourth Amend­ment vio­la­tion of right to bod­i­ly pri­va­cy for IRS agent’s mon­i­tor­ing of plain­tiff in the bath­room dur­ing exe­cu­tion of search warrant).

32. Com­pare Min­neci v. Pol­lard, 565 U.S. 118, 120–21 (2012) (deny­ing a Bivens rem­e­dy for an Eighth Amend­ment claim), with Ziglar, 137 U.S. at 1856 (“[I]t must be under­stood that this opin­ion is not intend­ed to cast doubt on the con­tin­ued force, or even the neces­si­ty, of Bivens in the search-and-seizure con­text in which it arose.”).

33. Faza­ga v. Fed. Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion, 965 F.3d 1015, 1055 (9th Cir. 2020) (quot­ing Gib­son v. Unit­ed States, 781 F.2d 1334, 1341 (9th Cir. 1986)).

34. Con­gress has, how­ev­er, passed leg­is­la­tion to address sim­i­lar online abus­es: Con­sumer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99–474, 100 Stat. 1213 (cod­i­fied as amend­ed at 18 U.S.C. § 1030), for exam­ple, relates to hack­ing by pri­vate par­ties, and the Elec­tron­ic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­va­cy Act (“ECPA”), Pub. L. 99–508, 100 Stat. 1848 (1986), cov­ers the inter­cep­tion of wire com­mu­ni­ca­tions and access of stored elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions with­out authorization.