Monday, December 19, 2016
Donald Trump plans to maintain a private security detail as President on top of his secret service team. If recent history is any guide, this group will overstep and violate someone's right. So: Do members of the detail act under color of federal law for constitutional purposes and, relatedly, are they subject to Bivens liability? And, if so, are they entitled to qualified immunity?
As to the first: One possible test is traditional public function, as protecting the President has, since 1901, been the exclusive domain of the Secret Service. A second is close nexus, which may depend on how much connection and collaboration there is between the private detail and the Secret Service or other White House and executive-branch personnel. A third possibility may depend on who is paying this detail--Trump himself or the government. Trump paid for the force during the campaign, much of it from campaign contributions; no word on whether that arrangement will continue. The trickier part may be Minneci v. Pollard, which could be read to reject "extending" Bivens to private actors, especially where state tort remedies (here, e.g., for assault) are available. At some level, this raises a situation of under-color-by-necessity: It would be intolerable for the President to be able to surround himself with a private security/intelligence detail operating above constitutional limitations.
As to the second: Filarsky v. Delia held that a private person hired by the government to perform public functions can claim qualified immunity. From this, it might follow that these private security officers enjoy the same immunity as federal agents (although it again may depend on who is paying and supervising them).
Update: Keith Schiller, a retired NYC cop and Navy veteran who heads Trump's security detail, will be named a personal White House aide. So that should clarify things: Schiller, as a federal employee, acts under color. And his close direction of private security personnel should be sufficient to place them under color.