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In 2010, a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old boy who was standing on the Mexican side of the border. Between 2005 and 2013, there were 42 of these cross-border shooting deaths. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments as to whether or not the family of that 15-year-old has the right to sue. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: To understand the facts of this case, you have to picture the place where the shooting happened on the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. The area is about 180 feet wide. Eighty feet one way leads to a steep incline and an 18-foot barbed wire fence on the U.S. side. An almost equal distance the other way, there's a steep incline leading to a wall topped by a guardrail on the Mexican side. In between is a concrete culvert through which an invisible line runs that separates the U.S. and Mexico.
And overhead is a railroad bridge with huge columns supporting it connecting the two countries. In June 2010, Sergio Hernandez and his friends were playing chicken, daring each other to run up the incline on the U.S. side and touch the fence. At some point, U.S. border agent Jesus Mesa, patrolling the culvert, arrived on a bicycle, grabbed one of the kids at the fence on the U.S. side while the others scampered away. Fifteen-year-old Sergio Hernandez ran past Mesa and hid behind a pillar beneath the bridge on the Mexican side.
As the boy peeked out, agent Mesa, 60 feet away or so on the U.S. side, drew his gun, aimed it at the boy and shot him dead. A day after the shooting, the FBI El Paso office issued a press release asserting that agent Mesa fired his gun after being, quote, "surrounded by suspected illegal aliens" who, quote, "continued to throw rocks at him." Two days later, cell phone videos surfaced contradicting that account. In one video, the boy's small figure can be seen edging out from behind the column.
Mesa fires and the boy falls to the ground.
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BOB HILLIARD: Third shot kills him. It's coming up.
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TOTENBERG: Bob Hilliard represents the Hernandez family in the lawsuit against Agent Mesa.
HILLIARD: In the video you just saw, it was clear that nobody was near him. The statement literally says he was surrounded by these boys, which is just objectively false.
TOTENBERG: On the cell phone video, a woman's voice is saying that some of the boys had been throwing rocks. But the video does not show that. The Justice Department decided not to prosecute Mesa. The department concluded it didn't have jurisdiction because the boy was not on U.S. soil when he was killed. Mexico charged the agent with murder. But when the U.S. refused to extradite him, no prosecution could go forward. The Border Patrol did not discipline agent Mesa, a fact that critics, including high-ranking former agency officials, say reflects a pattern inside the agency.
The parents of the slain boy, however, sued Mesa for damages, contending that the killing violated the Constitution by depriving Sergio Hernandez of his life. Here's Sergio's mother speaking through an interpreter.
MARIA GUADALUPE GUERECA: (Through interpreter) She can't believe that this is something that's allowed to happen, that a Border Patrol agent can kill a boy on the Mexican side and nothing happens.
TOTENBERG: As the case comes to the Supreme Court, there's been no trial yet, no court finding of facts. And Agent Mesa continues to maintain that he shot the boy in self-defense after being surrounded by rock-throwing kids. That's a scenario that his lawyers say is borne out by other videos from stationary cameras and not released to the public. Randolph Ortega represents Mesa on behalf of the Border Patrol Union.
RANDOLPH ORTEGA: It was clear that Agent Mesa was in an area that is wrought with narcotics trafficking and human trafficking. And it's clear that, in my opinion, he was defending himself.
TOTENBERG: Still, the only question before the Supreme Court today centers on whether the Hernandez family has the right to sue. A divided panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that no reasonable officer would have done what Agent Mesa did and that therefore, the parents could sue. However, the full Court of Appeals reversed that judgment ruling that because the Hernandez boy was standing on the Mexico side of the border and was a Mexican citizen with no ties to the United States, his family could not sue for a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Moreover, the appeals court said that even if the facts as alleged by the Hernandez family are true, Agent Mesa is entitled to qualified immunity, meaning he cannot be sued because there's no recognized body of law barring his conduct. Lawyers for the Hernandez family counter that Supreme Court precedents establish a practical approach in determining whether there's a right to sue for the use of excessive force in circumstances like these. Lawyer Hilliard says, yes, the boy was across the border when the shots were fired but by just 60 feet.
HILLIARD: This is a domestic action by a domestic police officer standing in El Paso, Texas, who is to be constrained by this country's Constitution. There is a U.S. Supreme Court case that says a law enforcement officer cannot seize an individual by shooting him dead, which is what happened in this case.
TOTENBERG: Hilliard argues that if you follow the Border Patrol's argument to its necessary conclusion...
HILLIARD: It means that a law enforcement officer standing in the United States is immune from the U.S. Constitution when exercising deadly force right across the border. He could stand on the border and target practice the kids inside the culvert.
TOTENBERG: But agent Mesa's lawyer, Randolph Ortega, replies, that's not true and asks, how should the court draw the line?
ORTEGA: How far does it extend? Does it extend 40 feet, as far as the bullet can travel, all of Juarez, Mexico, all of Chihuahua, Mexico? Where does the line end?
TOTENBERG: Backed by the federal government, Ortega speculates that a ruling in favor of the Hernandez family could mean foreigners could sue over a drone attack. Now it's up to the Supreme Court to decide where to draw the line. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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