Dan King
Dan King · July 10, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO—An Oakland activist has dealt a blow to the near-total immunity the United States government and federal officials enjoy from lawsuits seeking accountability for their unlawful conduct. Activist and entrepreneur René Quiñonez will get his day in court, after a federal district judge partially rejected the government’s effort to dismiss his challenge to the Postal Service’s baseless seizure and search of hundreds of packages during the summer 2020 protests against police violence. René and the Institute for Justice (IJ) first filed this lawsuit in June 2022. 

“We don’t surrender our right to privacy by using the postal service. All government officials must respect the Fourth Amendment, and the courts must hold them and their employers accountable when they overreach,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Protection against the seizure and search of Mr. Quiñonez’s quintessentially political messages is exactly why we have these constitutional safeguards.” 

René operates Movement Ink LLC, a justice-focused screen-printing company. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, organizers hired René to print as many face masks as possible to distribute to protestors marching for justice across the country. René, his family, employees, and volunteers worked nonstop to print, pack, and ship the masks—which had messages like “Stop Killing Black People”—overnight to organizers around the country.  

Instead, René and his clients were greeted by a disturbing “Alert”: “Seized by Law Enforcement.” The pall of suspicion this cast on René and Movement Ink nearly decimated the business—René’s labor of love. René spent months seeking answers and accountability through Freedom of Information Act requests and the government’s administrative processes. In doing so, he learned that postal officials knew his packages contained, in the officials’ own words, “BLM MASKS,” and that the officials had no lawful reason to seize or search the ordinary boxes. So René teamed up with IJ to file a federal lawsuit against the United States and the individual officials responsible for the violation of his rights.  

On June 29, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California held that the lawsuit should proceed against the United States via the Federal Tort Claims Act, under which the government assumes liability for a limited set of harms caused by its officials. The court recognized that “it is plausible that the defendants knew that the packages contained ‘BLM MASKS’ (as reflected in their internal notes) by searching them.” Such warrantless searches are clear violations of the Fourth Amendment. The court went on to hold that because the postal official who initially seized the packages knew René, Movement Ink, and the activist nature of their business, “one of the defendants knew of an economic relationship between the plaintiffs and a third party (the package recipients) with the probability of future economic benefit to the plaintiffs,” and therefore unlawfully interfered with those economic relationships. 

The lawsuit now proceeds to discovery, where René finally has the prospect of redress for the harms he and his business have suffered.  

“I have been seeking answers and accountability for the decimation of my business and my reputation for years,” said René. “Finally, I get my day in court, where the government will have to justify its interference with my protected speech.”