The nation's highest court on Monday sent a case involving the cross-border shooting death of a Mexican teenager back to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration.
That leaves the question of whether the teen's family can sue the U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired across the Rio Grande and killed him unanswered.
The case involves the 2010 death of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca during what officials called a "rock-throwing incident." The teen was shot and killed by agent Jesus Mesa Jr., who was patrolling the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso. Hernandez Guereca was on the Mexican side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez, when Mesa fatally shot him from the Texas side.
The teen’s family initially sued the U.S. government, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security and Mesa, alleging the teen’s civil rights had been violated. A district judge dismissed the charges because Hernandez was a Mexican national and was on Mexican soil when the shooting occurred.
An appellate court ruled in 2014 that Mesa could be sued in his individual capacity although the American agencies could not. Then, in April 2015, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Mesa, saying he was entitled to immunity because Hernandez was south of the Rio Grande when the shooting happened.
The teenager's family appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in October 2016, the high court agreed to consider the case. On Monday, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the 5th Circuit, ordering the court to revisit its previous ruling in light of other court decisions that have happened since.
"The facts alleged in the complaint depict a disturbing incident resulting in a heartbreaking loss of life," the court wrote. "Whether petitioners may recover damages for that loss in this suit depends on questions that are best answered by the Court of Appeals."
Attorneys for the family have argued that the lawsuit against Mesa should proceed partly because of a 1979 case, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The court held in that case that violating a person's Fourth Amendment rights, which guarantee protection from illegal search and seizure, gives them the right to pursue a legal challenge against a federal agent.