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Mexican Doctor Can Sue in DEA Case, Says 9th Circuit Court


October 1996

On September 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled that Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain can sue the U.S. Government and U.S. drug agents who abducted and allegedly tortured him (Henry Weinstein, "Court Backs Doctor's Right to Sue U.S. in DEA Case," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 25, 1996, p. B1).

On April 2, 1990, men working for the DEA abducted Dr. Alvarez in Mexico and turned him over to DEA agents in the U.S., who suspected him of participating in the 1985 slaying of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. Alvarez was charged with injecting Camarena with lidocaine during Camarena's interrogation and torture by Mexican drug lords. The doctor was acquitted of those charges in 1992 and later sued the U.S. government, four DEA agents, and two Mexican kidnappers. In his lawsuit, Alvarez alleged that his abductors tortured him. Once in the U.S., he claims that DEA agents threatened him, denied him food and medicine, and processed him under a false name to frustrate efforts by his family and the Mexican government in finding him.

After a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that most of Alvarez's case could go forward, the U.S. government appealed. The DEA agents contend that they possessed qualified immunity and should be dismissed from the case. However, in a 3-0 decision, the 9th Circuit rejected that argument. Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote that "pretrial detainees have a clearly established right to be free from punishment."

The 9th Circuit also rejected the arguments of the two Mexican DEA operatives that Alvarez had improperly invoked the federal Torture Victim Protection Act because it was passed in 1992, after the incident. The judges noted that "torture has long been prohibited by international law," and that "aliens have had the right to adjudicate torture claims in our federal courts since the passage of the Alien Tort Claim Act in 1789."

"It's a strong move for the 9th Circuit to say that people employed by the U.S. government who violate the rights of an individual are not immune from being responsible," said Diane Marie Amman, a UC Davis law professor, who specializes in international criminal law. Alvarez's attorney, Santa Monica lawyer Paul Hoffman, said a ruling against his client "would have set a dangerous precedent."