WASHINGTON – The Smuggler’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on the U.S.-Canada border that officials say is a magnet for illegal border crossings, was the setting of a case heard Wednesday at the Supreme Court.
Some online reviewers praise the property for its scenic views, while others say its cleanliness leaves much to be desired. But a lawyer for the Biden administration added another negative review in court, calling the place “rundown” and a “constant headache.” While the high court case involves whether the inn owner can sue a federal official, the cheekily-named inn was also the subject of questions.
Officials have said the Blaine, Washington, inn is an easy place for people, drugs and money to cross the border. Its backyard — where flagpoles fly the U.S. and Canadian flags — is just steps from Canada's “Zero" Avenue and there's no fence. The inn's owner allegedly often leaves his back door unlocked for border crossers, and rooms are named after famous smugglers and other notorious individuals including gangster Al Capone. A black SUV used by the inn has the personalized license plate “SMUGLER.”
“They’ve had years where there have been multiple incidents per week of people coming across the border into the United States from Canada,” Biden administration lawyer Michael Huston said in court.
At one point during a little over an hour of arguments in the case Justice Samuel Alito asked a question involving one of the justices hypothetically checking in to the inn. “Suspicious characters,” Justice Elena Kagan said to laughter.
Officials say cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and opiates have been trafficked through the property. And the property's owner Robert Boule has pleaded guilty to charges in Canada of illegally helping people cross the border into the country.
But Boule has also served as an informant for the U.S. government, and parts of documents filed in the high court case were redacted. His lawyers say he has a “longstanding cooperative relationship with the U.S. government.”
It's an incident involving Boule that prompted the high court case. In 2014, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Erik Egbert learned from Boule that a guest arriving at the inn that day was from Turkey. Egbert considered that suspicious and when the guest arrived, he went to investigate. Boule asked him to leave, but Egbert allegedly shoved him and pushed him to the ground, injuring Boule’s back. After determining the guest was legally in the country, Egbert left.
Boule complained to Egbert’s supervisors about the rough treatment, and Boule says Egbert retaliated by making reports about him and his business to various state and federal agencies including the Internal Revenue Service. But no agency found any wrongdoing.
Boule sued, saying Egbert had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force and his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him. A federal trial court ruled for Egbert, but an appeals court reversed the decision and Egbert appealed to the Supreme Court.
The high court said in 1971 that people could sue federal officials for violating their constitutional rights. But over the last 40 years the court has consistently declined to expand the kinds of cases, called Bivens actions, in which a person could sue. That includes blocking a lawsuit in the U.S. by parents of a teenager killed in Mexico by a U.S. Border Patrol agent firing across the border. A number of justices suggested Boule may similarly be out of luck, particularly with his First Amendment claim.
The Associated Press was one of nearly three dozen media organizations that joined a brief urging the justices to side with Boule, arguing that the ability of journalists to sue federal officials for damages over First Amendment violations is important to press freedom.
As for the Turkish guest whose stay at the inn started the case, he crossed into Canada illegally the same night.