WASHINGTON—Today, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case of an innocent college student who was brutally beaten by plainclothes officers working on a federal task force in 2014. The High Court heard the case in 2020, but reserved an issue for future review. After litigating that issue in the lower court, James King, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), sought to have his case heard by the high court for a second time on the issue the Supreme Court left unresolved. Through its denial today, the Court leaves that issue open.
“For far too long, the courts have created more and more immunities that shield government officials from accountability when they violate people’s constitutional rights, as these taskforce officers did when they beat James to a pulp,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “The court had an opportunity to stymy one of these immunities to permit James King to seek the justice he so sorely deserves, but today’s decision not to hear this case leaves the law unsettled and James King’s constitutional rights unenforceable.”
In 2014, while a college student, James was walking in between summer jobs 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 plainclothes members of a police task force—one an FBI agent and the other a Grand Rapids, Michigan, detective. The officers never identified themselves as law enforcement officers, 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 and transported him to the hospital, where he was handcuffed to a bed. Although James was completely innocent and simply the victim of an unreasonable misidentification, local prosecutors charged James with several felonies resulting from the officers’ attack, but a jury found James not guilty on all charges.
“It’s been nearly ten years since I was assaulted by those task force officers, and I’ve continually been denied justice for that unjustifiable attack,” said James. “I desperately wanted the Court to hear this case and restore some accountability to our justice system—not just for me, but for all victims of such civil rights violations. I truly hoped the Court would take the chance to restore accountability to our system. I am very disappointed that it decided, instead, to do nothing.”
Last time this case was before the court, it handed the U.S. Solicitor General a technical victory but declined to create the new immunity the government requested under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Under the government’s theory, if a plaintiff cannot sue the United States for a state-law tort, like assault or battery, he should not be permitted to sue an individual government official for a constitutional violation. The Supreme Court did not accept that theory but, instead, remanded that question to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to decide. The Sixth Circuit punted in a 2-1 opinion by citing earlier, outdated circuit precedent. Still, the effect of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling gave the government what it requested: immunity for the police.
In its second petition to the Supreme Court, IJ asked the Court to consider the issue the Sixth Circuit refused: whether the FTCA’s judgment bar—unlike the common-law res judicata on which it’s modeled—ever applies to claims brought in the same lawsuit. On top of qualified immunity and other protective doctrines (which James had already overcome), the case sought to have the Supreme Court reject yet another immunity doctrine that denies Americans the protection of their Constitution.
In a separate statement, Justice Sonia Sotomayor—who concurred in the Court’s original decision, highlighting the importance of the issue King raised and the need for the Court to address it—argued that the court’s application of the FTCA’s judgement bar “produces unfair and inefficient results. James King now cannot litigate his claims that officers unconstitutionally stopped, searched, assaulted, and hospitalized him, even though the Sixth Circuit previously concluded that these claims could proceed to a jury trial.” Sotomayor also said the issue, which divides the nation’s courts of appeals, deserves “much closer analysis” moving forward.
“The FTCA was meant to expand government accountability, but these recent decisions by the courts have hollowed that law out to the point of being toothless for many victims of government abuse. And, as cases like James’ show, the FTCA can actually be used as a trap to cancel out important constitutional claims,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell.
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court to not hear James’ case is a disappointing one for James and all Americans who are victims of abuse at the hands of government actors, but we’re determined to continue fighting back against these immunity doctrines that put government employees above the law,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock.
Indeed, IJ will litigate another immunity case in the Supreme Court next spring. Gonzalez v. Trevino addresses the standards under which a plaintiff can sue government officials who retaliate against her for her protected speech.