Arlington, Virginia—In 2014, James King was a law-abiding college student who was brutally beaten and choked unconscious by members of a joint state/federal police task force after they misidentified him as a suspect sought in connection with a non-violent petty crime. Ever since that day, the government has used every tool at its disposal to ensure those officers are not held accountable to the Constitution.
The Institute for Justice (IJ) now represents James in the appeal of his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the government has asked for yet another special protection for the officers while James seeks justice not only for himself, but all victims of abuse committed by joint state/federal task forces.
As IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo explained, “The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from undertaking unreasonable searches and seizures. Here, at every step of the way, the officers were unreasonable in searching and seizing James, including when they beat him. We filed this lawsuit in 2016. It’s now 2020 and the government still hasn’t even filed an answer addressing all the claims that we’ve raised. Instead, they’ve spent the past four years filing different motions with courts, arguing under technicalities why they shouldn’t be held accountable rather than explaining why what they did actually wasn’t wrong.”
One of those technicalities is called “qualified immunity,” a special legal protection the Supreme Court created in the 1980s to protect government officials. Under qualified immunity, officers can violate the Constitution unless previous court rulings have explicitly prohibited that exact action by the police—a standard that has become nearly impossible to meet.
“James is asking to have the appeals court ruling corrected so he and others whose rights have been violated by state/federal task force members can hold officers accountable under both state and federal law,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bob McNamara. “The government wants to maintain a system where it’s heads, they win, tails, you lose. That’s unfair and unlawful, and we are fighting to change it.”
Over the past several decades, the use of joint state/federal police task forces has exploded. Members of these task forces are state and federal police officers with power under both state and federal law. As a result, federal officers police state laws, and state officers police federal laws. Today about 1,000 task forces operate nationwide.
In 2014, King, then a 21-year-old college student, was walking between his two summer jobs in Grand Rapids, Michigan when he came upon two men in t-shirts and jeans, leaning against a black SUV. Although James had no idea who they were, these men were a local police detective and an FBI agent working as part of a task force and looking for a fugitive wanted for stealing a box of empty cans and several bottles of liquor from his former boss’ apartment. Without identifying themselves as police, the men began asking James questions and ultimately pinned him against their vehicle. When one of the men took James’ wallet, James believed he was being mugged. But when he tried to escape, the men tackled James, choked him unconscious, and severely beat him. While he was being beaten, James screamed for help, and passersby—who also did not recognize the men as police—called 911 pleading for help for James.
When uniformed officers arrived, things got worse for James. The criminal justice system immediately began shielding the men—now identified as police officers—from accountability. A uniformed police officer forced witnesses to delete video evidence. Police charged James—whom they knew was not the fugitive—with serious felonies. And the county prosecuted James for those crimes. If any of the system’s efforts had succeeded, James would not have been able to vindicate his constitutional rights. Thankfully, the efforts of police and prosecutors to close ranks and protect the officers failed: James refused to take a plea deal, and the jury acquitted James of all charges.
After the trial, James filed a lawsuit against the officers for violating his rights, but the system employed yet another means—what amounts to a shell game—to shield the officers from accountability. The government argued James’ case had to be dismissed because, although the officers were executing a Michigan warrant against a Michigan resident for a Michigan crime committed in Michigan (there was no federal crime), the officers had not abused state power because, as task force members, they were acting under federal power. And because Michigan provided the federal government with immunity for actions like those committed by the officers, the officers could not be held liable for abusing federal power either. The government also argued that the officers, even if liable for abusing state and federal power, were entitled to qualified immunity—a court-created doctrine that allows government officers to violate the Constitution as long as a court has not already held that the officers’ specific acts are unconstitutional.
The trial court agreed and dismissed James’ entire case. The 6th U.S. Court of Appeals, however, reversed the trial court in every way but one: It said James could only argue that the officers violated federal—not state—power.
“If an officer has both state and federal powers, he should be more—not less—accountable to the Constitution,” said IJ President & General Counsel Scott Bullock. “As part of IJ’s new Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ seeks to ensure that the Bill of Rights is not a suggestion and that constitutional promises of property rights, free speech, due process, and other rights are actually enforceable.”
IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell said, “If citizens must follow the law, the government must also. Following the Constitution means officials must be held accountable for violating it. IJ is representing James to ensure that law enforcement officers cannot operate above the law and free from the Constitution.”
James said, “I want to hold these officers to account for their actions in large part because of the system and how broken it is. These officers did something that was illegal and then charged me for crimes, and the system closed around them and help them get away with that. Reforming the system from the top down so we hold each and every official accountable for their actions would be a great start and a great way for this case to close.”
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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, IJ’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205. More information on the case is available at: https://ij.org/case/brownback-v-king/.]