In 2020, Brownback v. King became the first case in IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability argued before the United States Supreme Court. IJ is now asking the Supreme Court to hear the case for a second time and strike down a “tort immunity” the government convinced the lower courts to adopt to shield government officials—like members of police task forces—from constitutional accountability. 

James King’s case began more than eight years ago when members of a task force misidentified and brutally beat him. King sued the officers, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied them qualified immunity. Before the case could proceed to a jury, however, the federal government asked the Supreme Court to take the case and recognize an immunity under a statute called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Under this tort immunity, if a victim of federal abuse cannot sue the federal government for a state tort—like assault, battery, false arrest, etc.—he cannot hold the government’s employee liable for a constitutional violation either. This, even though state torts and constitutional claims have different elements and are designed to remedy different rights. 

The Supreme Court heard the case but, at IJ’s urging, refused to recognize the new immunity requested by the government. Instead, the high court asked the Sixth Circuit to decide the issue first. Rather than seriously engaging with the issue, as the Supreme Court asked, the Sixth Circuit unthinkingly applied outdated caselaw, becoming the sixth federal appeals court to do so. Now, IJ is asking the Supreme Court to weigh in and deny the government one of its many tools to avoid the Constitution.  

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Unaccountable task forces have quietly expanded across the country. 

Historically, states were responsible for most policing. But in recent decades, the federal government has found a work around: joint task forces. Virtually unknown for much of American history, these task forces have become commonplace. Today about a thousand task forces operate nationwide, and that number is growing. To take one example of how rapidly the use of task forces has expanded, the FBI and NYPD formed their first terrorism joint task force in 1979. By 2001, there were 35. Today, there are about 200, involving officers from more than 650 different state and federal agencies. 

Task forces are charged with policing everything from narcotics to car thefts. The FBI, for example, advertises its involvement with task forces aimed at terrorism, gangs, organized crime, cyber-crimes, white-collar crimes, “Indian Country” crimes, bank robberies, narcotics, kidnappings, motor vehicle thefts, and fugitives. 

The case of James King illustrates how these task forces are often unaccountable, their members free to violate the Constitution. 

Task force officers misidentified and hospitalized James King, an innocent college student. 

In 2014, King was walking between two summer jobs in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when two men in scruffy street clothes stopped him, pushed him against an unmarked SUV, and took his wallet.  

One of the undercover police officers who beat and choked James King.

James, thinking he was being mugged, did what anyone would do: He ran. And when the two men caught up with him and beat him mercilessly, James fought for his life to escape before they choked him unconscious.

As James would only later discover, his muggers were actually a local police detective and an FBI agent working as part of a joint state-federal task force. The officers were looking for a non-violent, local fugitive wanted for the petty crime of stealing a box of empty soda cans and several bottles of liquor from his former boss’ apartment. 

The officers had a vague description of the fugitive: a 26-year-old white male between 5’10” and 6’3” with glasses. The pictures they had proved that the fugitive looked nothing like James. But still, the officers stopped James. 

Like James, bystanders did not know that the men beating him were with law enforcement officers. Responding to James’ desperate pleas for help, bystanders called the police stating that the men who were beating James “were going to kill him” if he didn’t get help immediately. Uniformed officers eventually arrived on the scene. 

The criminal justice system closed ranks to protect their own. 

The criminal justice system immediately closed ranks to shield the officers from accountability for their actions. When uniformed officers arrived on the scene, one went around forcing witnesses to delete evidence. 

James King immediately after the beating.
James King days after the beating.

Although it was clear that James was not the fugitive, but instead an innocent student whom the officers had misidentified, police still charged James with several felonies and took him by ambulance to the hospital, where they handcuffed James to his bed. From there, police took James to jail, where he stayed until he could make bail. 

Worse still, Kent County, Michigan, prosecutors refused to drop the charges. Instead, after James rejected a plea offer, prosecutors subjected him to a criminal trial. Thankfully, a jury acquitted James of all charges. If James had been convicted or pleaded guilty, he could have faced decades in prison, and it would have been nearly impossible for him to sue the officers and hold them to account for their actions that violated his constitutional rights. 

James seeks justice. 

James sought justice by filing a federal lawsuit against the officers and the federal government. After the trial court initially granted the officers qualified immunity, the federal appeals court reversed that ruling, which normally would have sent the case back to the trial court, where James would at last have an opportunity to present his case and ask a jury to hold these officers to account. But instead, the government (specifically, the U.S. Solicitor General) appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and asserted an argument that would create an enormous new loophole through which government officials can escape accountability when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. 

IJ argues that if citizens must follow the law, the government must follow the Constitution. 

A number of members of Congress, scholars, and advocates urged the High Court not to create a loophole for government officials seeking to escape accountability. Many have agreed to support King’s second petition to the Supreme Court, as well. 

This brief video provides an overview of James King’s case: 

Litigation Team 

Institute for Justice attorneys Patrick Jaicomo, Anya Bidwell, and Keith Neely represent James King. They are assisted by local counsel D. Andrew Portinga. 

The Institute for Justice 

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the National Law Firm for Liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for free speech, private property rights, economic liberty, and educational choice. IJ is dedicated to fighting judge-made rules that make it extremely difficult to hold government officials accountable for violating the Constitution. IJ’s efforts include direct lawsuits against government officials, appellate friend-of-the-court briefs in support of individuals who suffered at the hands of government officials, and outreach to members of the public who want to know more about the difficulties of holding government officials accountable. IJ does all this because of its fundamental belief that following the Constitution means being held accountable for violating it. The judge-made rules that allow government officials to violate the U.S. Constitution without consequence have no place in our constitutional Republic.

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