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Alvarez-Machain v. Sosa et al./Alvarez-Machain v. The United States of America

Court United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit, United States
Case number 266 F.3d 1045
Decision title Opinion
Decision date 11 September 2001
  • Humberto Alvarez-Machain
  • Francisco Sosa
  • Five unnamed Mexican nationals, in the federal witness protection program at time of the trial
  • United States of America
Categories Human rights violations, Torture
Keywords torture, abduction, arbitrary detention, assault and battery, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, denial of adequate medical treatment, false arrest, false imprisonment, kidnapping, negligent employment, universal jurisdiction
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In 1990, several Mexican nationals, executing an assignment from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, abducted one of the persons suspected of involvement in the murder of a DEA official. He was eventually acquitted of all charges by an American Court and returned to Mexico. Alvarez-Machain attempted to take legal action against the Mexican nationals involved in his arrest, and against the United States. In first instance, the Court rejected the action against the United States, but established Sosa’s liability. The three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals confirmed Sosa’s liability, establishing that his involvement in the arbitrary arrest and detention of Alvarez-Machain constituted a breach of the ‘law of nations’. Concerning the liability of the United States, the Court found that the issue was of such important nature that it remanded the question and initiated an en banc (full court) hearing to decide on it.

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Procedural history

In 1990, Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican citizen and resident, was forcibly kidnapped from his home and flown to Texas where he was arrested for his participation in the kidnapping and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and the agent's pilot. Both the Court of First Instance and Court of Appeal found this forcible abduction a violation of the extradition treaty between the US and Mexico, which barred Alvarez-Machain's trial before a US court. This decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in its 1992 ruling that the abduction did not violate the extradition treaty. Alvarez-Machain's trial was allowed to commence, albeit to no avail: he was ultimately acquitted in 1993 due to lack of evidence, after which he returned to Mexico.

Alvarez-Machain brought a lawsuit against the United States for false arrest and against several Mexican nationals, including Francisco Sosa, for violating the law of nations. The federal district court ruled that the DEA had acted lawfully when they arrested Alvarez-Machain. Therefore, it held that the United States was not liable, while Sosa’s liability was established.

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Related developments

Since the question of US liability was found to be a matter of exceptional public importance, an en banc court hearing was initiated to deal with this question. The Court opined that Machain's abduction had been unlawful and that the US was liable as well. However, the Supreme Court ultimately rejected both Sosa's and the US' liability since the abduction was, strictly spoken, not a violation of the law of nations.

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Legally relevant facts

After investigating the kidnapping and murder of a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) special agent, the DEA concluded that physician Humberto Alvarez-Machain had participated in the murder. It was alleged that he had prolonged the agent’s life so that others could further torture and interrogate him.  An arrest warrant was issued and the United States negotiated with the Mexican government without any formal extradition request. On 2 April 1990, Alvarez-Machain was forcibly kidnapped, e.g. by Mexican nationals who were not affiliated with either the Mexican or US government and flown to Texas, where he was arrested by the DEA (para. 14). Alvarez-Machain moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming that his abduction constituted outrageous governmental conduct, and that the Court lacked jurisdiction to try him because he was abducted in violation of the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico. The Supreme Court eventually held that the arrest did not violate the extradition treaty and that Alvarez-Machain could be tried in a US court (para. 15). He was eventually acquitted. After his return to Mexico, Alvarez-Machain filed an action against several Mexican nationals who had assisted in his arrest, the United States and four DEA agents (para. 16).   

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Core legal questions

The District Court in first instance had established Sosa’s liability under the ATS and had dismissed the action against the United States. The three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals now had to assess the appeal to the District Court’s judgement. Alvarez-Machain had argued, most importantly, against the dismissal of his FTCA claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, kidnapping, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The FTCA (28 U.S.C. para 1346(b)(1), 2671-2680) authorizes private tort actions against the United States where, if the US were a private person, it would be liable to the claimant according to the law of the place where a particular act or omission occurred. Alvarez-Machain also appealed the District Court’s decision to limit damages to those imposed for his imprisonment in Mexico. Sosa appealed against the District Court’s decision to declare him liable under the ATS (28 U.S.C. para. 1350, stating that “the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”).

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • 28 United States Code, paragraph 1350.
  • 28 United States Code, paragraph 1346(b)(1).
  • 28 United States Code, paragraphs 2671-2680.

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Court's holding and analysis

The three-judge panel reiterates that Alvarez-Machain has standing to recover under the ATS. However, the District Court had stated that Sosa’s liability arose from both the violation of Mexico’s sovereignty and from the abduction itself. The panel only accepted the latter ground, as only Mexico has standing to object to violations of its territory (para. 22). Regarding the latter ground, the panel held that human rights, as laid down in several instruments, fall within the scope of the “law of nations”, a prerequisite in the ATS (paras. 24-33). Both Alvarez-Machain’s kidnapping and arbitrary detention violated human rights law, according to the panel (paras. 33-38). 

Regarding the FTCA, the panel agreed with the District Court that the “foreign activities” exception, which excludes from application of the FTCA claims arising in a foreign country, did not apply to this case, as the arrest was planned in the United States (paras. 46-47). However, the panel disagreed with the District Court’s assessment that Alvarez-Machain’s apprehension in Mexico was not a false arrest under California law because it was something akin to a citizen’s arrest (para. 74). According to the panel, “state privileges do not bar holding federal officers liable under the FTCA” (para. 77). 

The Court found that the law was not entirely clear on the question on US liability, though, and because of the complex nature and importance of the question, and en banc hearing was eventually initiated to decide on the question.

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Further analysis

In a commentary on the Alien Tort Statute, Bhatia discusses the legal history of this Act. Berman elaborates on the term ‘law of nations’. Ku and Yoo discuss the ability of federal courts to incorporate customary international law through the Alien Tort Statute.

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Instruments cited

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Social media links

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