Oakland Entrepreneur and Activist Fights Federal Immunity
When the Founders gave Congress the power to “establish Post Offices,” they didn’t mean for those offices to become Constitution-free zones. The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures means that postal officials, like all government agents, need facts suggesting that our mail contains illegal or dangerous items before they can snatch it.
But IJ client René Quiñonez came to learn how easily postal officials can violate our right to privacy in our mail—and how hard it is to seek accountability when they do. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court has cloaked federal officials with near-absolute immunity from constitutional lawsuits, no matter how egregiously they violate our rights.
René and his family have spent years building Movement Ink, a small screen-printing business well known in California’s Bay Area for its commitments to providing high-quality products and promoting social causes. They print logos and slogans on everything from hoodies to onesies. So when national protests arose in the summer of 2020, over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, René’s reputation resulted in orders from protesters around the country for thousands of COVID-protective masks emblazoned with protest speech.
For days, René, his employees, his family, his community, and even his competitors worked around the clock to cut, print, press, and pack nearly 10,000 masks bearing messages like “Stop Killing Black People.” René barely slept. But these weren’t typical orders. They were a labor of love—René’s way of standing up and speaking out.
He shipped the packages express; they were supposed to arrive within a day. But instead of delivery notices, René and his clients received a cryptic alert: “Seized by Law Enforcement.” No one explained why these cloth masks were in the hands of federal police instead of on the faces of political protesters. It took an official inquiry from René’s congresswoman and a monthslong Freedom of Information Act process to get any answers. And those answers confirmed that the plain brown boxes were seized for no reason—there was no basis to suspect René, Movement Ink, or his clients of any wrongdoing.
But the damage was done. The seizures cast a pall of uncertainty around René. In one day, the postal officials’ suspicionless seizures dashed years of his reputation-building—and put the kibosh on plans for ongoing nationwide distribution of protest apparel.
To ensure that no other small-business owner—or anyone else—endures what René has, he’s teamed up with IJ to sue the officials responsible for unconstitutionally seizing his property, tarnishing his reputation, and harming his business. But because the officials work for the federal government, they’re cloaked by the Supreme Court’s ever-expanding grant of near-absolute immunity from accountability. Just this summer, the Court made it even harder to sue federal officials and then proceeded to deny IJ’s efforts to seek accountability on behalf of Hamdi Mohamud (who spent two years of her youth imprisoned because of an officer’s lies) and Kevin Byrd (who was nearly killed by an off-duty officer).
The Court insists this is Congress’ problem to solve. We think a provision of federal law known as the Westfall Act already provides for constitutional remedies against federal officials, and we will be pressing that argument in René’s case. Otherwise, the Court’s grants of immunity embolden federal officials to act with impunity. So, despite setbacks, IJ and René remain committed to reviving the bedrock principles that where there is a constitutional wrong there must be a remedy and that no government official is above the law.
Jaba Tsitsuashvili is an IJ attorney.
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