Supreme Court Tosses Suit Brought by Michigan Man Beaten by Police in Mistaken Identity Case

February 25, 2021 Updated: February 25, 2021

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against a former Michigan college student who sued police officers for beating him after mistaking him for a criminal suspect, finding on technical grounds that his claim was barred by the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The case is Brownback v. King, court file 19-546. The high court’s opinion, dated Feb. 25, which overturned a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a separate opinion concurring with the result.

Respondent James King, at the time a student at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, was roughed up by police officers who were members of a federal task force and mistook King for a fugitive.

King, who was in his early 20s when he was walking outside at night in 2014, was set upon by undercover law enforcement officers Grand Rapids Police Detective Todd Allen and FBI Special Agent Douglas Brownback, who demanded identification from King. The officers thought King was a burglary suspect; King thought he was being mugged and refused to produce ID.

Things escalated and the policemen put King into a chokehold and beat him, according to Law and Crime.

King was acquitted of resisting arrest and assaulting the police. He then sued for excessive use of force.

King sued the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), claiming the officers committed six torts, or civil wrongs, under Michigan law. King also sued the officers individually under the implied cause of action recognized by the Supreme Court in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents (1971), alleging four violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. The historic Bivens ruling opened the door to individuals suing federal officers for rights violations.

The FTCA, Thomas writes, “allows a plaintiff to bring certain state-law tort suits against the Federal Government. … It also includes a provision, known as the judgment bar, which precludes ‘any action by the [plaintiff], by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.’”

“While waiving sovereign immunity so parties can sue the United States directly for harms caused by its employees, the FTCA made it more difficult to sue the employees themselves by adding a judgment bar provision,” Thomas wrote.

The 6th Circuit found that the officers weren’t entitled to qualified immunity, and that the U.S. District Court’s order dismissing King’s FTCA claims “did not trigger the judgment bar because the plaintiff’s failure to establish all elements of his FTCA claims had deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction,” he wrote.

“We disagree and hold that the District Court’s order also went to the merits of the claim and thus could trigger the judgment bar.”

King’s lawyers view the Supreme Court ruling as providing an opportunity for their client to seek an accounting from the policemen.

Institute for Justice attorney Patrick Jaicomo, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, was sanguine about King’s legal prospects.

“Although today’s decision appears at first glance to deal a blow to constitutional accountability, in reality, the Supreme Court teed up the central issue in this case for the federal appeals court to reconsider,” Jaicomo said in a statement.

The Supreme Court is asking the 6th Circuit “to weigh in on whether centuries of common-law practice should apply—or be abandoned—when the issue involves constitutional violations committed by federal police. When it does, our client James King, the innocent college student the officers choked and beat in 2014, will be able to persuasively argue why he deserves a day in court. And that’s what we have been fighting for since day one. If Americans must follow the law, government employees must follow the Constitution.”

Acting U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, counsel of record for the Biden administration, didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.