ARLINGTON, Va.—A new cert petition before the United States Supreme Court asks the Justices to strike down an immunity recognized by a lower court for two police task force officers who brutally beat an innocent college student in 2014. Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), James King is asking the High Court to hear his case for a second time and close a massive loophole for government officials who violate people’s rights.
When the Court first heard James’ case in 2020, the government asked the Justices to recognize a new immunity under a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). If the Justices approved this immunity, the door would be slammed shut on James’ case. Upon IJ’s urging, the Court declined to recognize this new immunity and instead asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear IJ’s arguments why it should not be applied. Unfortunately, the Sixth Circuit cited outdated case law to apply the immunity and let the government off the hook. Now, IJ is asking the court to once again hear the case.
“Instead of seriously engaging with the arguments against the immunity, the Sixth Circuit applied it and created a poison pill for any constitutional claims against the officers who violated James’ rights,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “We’re asking the Supreme Court to hear this case again and make clear that if citizens have to follow the law, the government has to follow the Constitution.”
The case started in 2014. James, then a college student, was walking between two summer jobs in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when two men stopped him, demanded his name, and took his wallet. Thinking he was being mugged, James ran. But the men caught him, beat him to the point that his face was unrecognizable, and choked him unconscious. James only later discovered that the men were members of a police task force—one an FBI agent and the other a local detective. The officers never identified themselves as law enforcement to James, and bystanders who witnessed the beating were equally in the dark, calling 911 to report what they believed to be an attempted murder in broad daylight. Uniformed officers arrived, and, even though it was clear James was not the wanted suspect, arrested James, transported him to the hospital, and handcuffed him to his bed.
“After all this time, I still want to hold accountable the officers who put me through this unconstitutional hell, but the courts continue to prevent me from doing so,” said James. “The Supreme Court must hear my case and restore accountability. Not just for me, but for the many victims of government abuse suffering silently without access to our courts.”
James filed a federal lawsuit against the officers and the federal government. The trial court granted the officers qualified immunity, shielding them from accountability, but the appeals court overturned that decision. Normally, that would mean the case would go back to the trial court and James would have the opportunity to make his case in front of a jury. Instead, the federal government appealed to the Supreme Court.
The government asked the court to take the case and recognize an immunity under the 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. This requested immunity is cruelly ironic because Congress originally passed the FTCA to create a means for victims of rights violations from federal officers to hold those officers accountable.
“The government has essentially said ‘if you lose one claim, you’re out of luck, and you lose all of your claims,’” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “That’s not how any other area of the law works and that’s not how the FTCA should work, either. It turns a statute that was supposed to expand government accountability into one that swallows it up.”
This case is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which seeks to hold government officials who violate people’s rights accountable. Other cases include one where a Texas grandmother was thrown in jail for opposing a mayor and his political allies, one where a corrupt former prosecutor brought bogus charges against a group of nurses who wanted to quit an abusive job and charged their attorney with “conspiracy” for helping them, and another where a family court judge led a warrantless search of a man’s home during a divorce hearing and threatened to jail him for recording it.