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US Supreme Court to decide if knowledge confers jurisdiction

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have agreed to decide whether a court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant whose sole “contact” with the forum state is his knowledge that the plaintiff has connections there.

The case involves a Bivens action brought by a couple against a Drug Enforcement Administration agent alleging the agent violated their Fourth Amendment rights during a flight stopover in Atlanta when the couple was flying home to Las Vegas from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The couple was carrying $97,000 in cash that they said they won at a San Juan casino. They were stopped after drug dogs signaled at their bags. The agent, suspecting the couple to be involved in illegal drug activity, seized the cash. The agent subsequently prepared a false probable cause affidavit to have to money forfeited to the government.

A federal prosecutor ultimately concluded that the government lacked probable cause to seize the cash, and it was returned to the couple about seven months later.

The couple brought a Bivens action in a Nevada federal district court, but the court dismissed the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. The conduct of the agent, the court held, was “expressly aimed” at Georgia and the only contact the agent had with Nevada was being told by the couple that they lived there.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Acknowledging that the conduct was aimed at Georgia, a majority of the divided panel held that the “the false probable cause affidavit aspect of the case” supported jurisdiction in Nevada.

The Supreme Court granted the agent’s petition for certiorari, and the case will be heard and decided next term.

Fiore v. Walden, No. 12-574. Certiorari granted: March 4, 2013.

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