Will U.S. Supreme Court Create Large Loophole for Officers and Officials Seeking to Escape Accountability?

John Kramer
John Kramer · September 4, 2020

Arlington, VirginiaIn a case to be argued November 9, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to create a huge loophole that would allow law enforcement officers and other government officials who violate the constitutional rights of Americans to escape accountability for their actions. The case pits the U.S. Solicitor General—the federal government’s top appellate lawyer—against attorneys from the Institute for Justice, which represents James King, an innocent college student who was brutally beaten and choked unconscious by plainclothes police.

In 2014, King was walking between two summer jobs when two men in scruffy street clothes stopped him, demanded to know his name, and forcibly took his wallet. James, thinking he was being mugged, did what anyone would do in that circumstance:  He ran. And when the two men caught up with him and beat him mercilessly, James fought for his life to escape before they choked him unconscious.

The two men who attacked James King that summer day were law enforcement officers. They had mistaken James for a nonviolent fugitive they sought (who was wanted for stealing soda cans and liquor from his former boss’s apartment) even though James bore no resemblance whatsoever to the suspect.

After the beating, police and local prosecutors didn’t arrest or charge the officers involved in the unjustified attack. Instead—in the first of many efforts to deny James King his day in court rather than hold the officers to account—the government filed multiple bogus felony charges against James in the hope that he would accept a plea deal, thus undermining any chance he would have to file a civil rights lawsuit against the officers or the government.

But James refused to give in. He turned down the plea deal the government offered, and a jury exonerated James, finding him not guilty on all charges.

Then James sought justice by filing a federal lawsuit.

But figuring out who to sue was complicated. The men who had brutally beaten James were part of a joint federal-state task force comprised of both local police and federal law enforcement officers.  Therefore, as part of the suit, James sought damages from the government under what is known as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for harm inflicted by its employees—the officers. He also brought claims against the officers themselves for violating his constitutional rights. The trial court dismissed James’ claim against the government because it said Michigan’s government-immunity rules meant it did not have jurisdiction over the merits of his FTCA claim. The court also granted the officers “qualified immunity”—whereby they couldn’t be held individually liable for violating the Constitution.

On appeal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s qualified immunity ruling and ordered James’ case to return to the trial court where he could collect and present evidence to a jury that the officers violated his constitutional rights.

But instead of returning to the trial court, the government appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court and now asserts an argument that would make it much harder for victims like James to hold government officials accountable for violating their constitutional rights. The Solicitor General now argues that because the district court lacked jurisdiction over James’ FTCA claims, James’ constitutional claims—filed as part of the same lawsuit—should also be dismissed.

Institute for Justice Attorney Patrick Jaicomo, who will argue James’ case, said, “The dangerous and ironic thing here is that the FTCA is a law that was supposed to provide a means for Americans to hold their government accountable when government employees violate their rights. Now, the government is trying to weaponize the FTCA and use it to prevent ordinary citizens from ever having their day in court, even for gross constitutional abuses of authority like those James endured.”

IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell, co-counsel in this case, added, “If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the government, it will create an enormous new loophole through which government officials can escape accountability because if someone’s FTCA claims against the government are dismissed at any point in their litigation—even if they are dismissed without consideration of their merits —then, the government argues, the constitutional claims against the individual government officers or officials must be dismissed as well. This goes against basic rules of procedure every law student learns in the first year of law school, yet this is the argument the government insists on making in order to further shield government officials from liability.”

Jaicomo added, “James has been battling for six years just to get his day in court. The law is supposed to give everyone a fair chance to make their case in court, but the government is asking the Supreme Court to take that chance away from James. The Court should strongly reject that request.”

James continues to suffer not only because of the attack on him but also because of the ensuing trumped-up felony charges brought against him.

“I still suffer to this day for what the officers did to me and also because of what the government did afterward to protect those officers from justice,” James said. “I had to drop out of college. I have panic attacks whenever I see a police officer, which I never had before. I have nightmares and trouble sleeping. And now, years later, I find it hard to improve my employment prospects and likewise on the social level because people will Google me and see I was charged with multiple felonies. It takes a lot of explaining to convince them I was totally innocent.”

“The government is asking the Court to provide another shell for its shell game that would make it harder for plaintiffs to bring claims against government officers and easier for officials to avoid accountability for their constitutional violations,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel at the Institute for Justice, which is representing James as part of its newly launched Project on Immunity and Accountability. “IJ will continue to do everything in our power to ensure there is justice for James King and all those who have suffered at the hands of rogue government officials who abuse our constitutional rights.”

Bullock concluded, “America is coming to realize that law-enforcement misconduct, on both state and federal levels, is a serious problem. And while Americans will have different views about how to address that problem, we should all be able to agree that the first step is making sure that officers who violate constitutional rights should be held accountable.”