Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Challenge to Police Officers’ Immunity in Excessive Force Claim

March 30, 2020 Updated: March 30, 2020

A dispute between a Michigan man and law enforcement over the use of excessive force in a mistaken identity case will be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The case stems from a 2014 incident in which two undercover law enforcement officers mistook the identity of a then-college student, James King, for a wanted home invasion fugitive. The officers—Grand Rapids Police Department detective Todd Allen and FBI agent Douglas Brownback—were assigned to work as members of a state-federal police task force that was searching for the suspect.

King, who fit the general description of the suspect, was stopped by the two plainclothes officers, who wore their badges on lanyards while walking near a gas station in Grand Rapids. He was not able to produce any identification. When the two officers began searching his body and removed his wallet, King thought he was being mugged and made a run for it.

The officers then pursued the student and eventually, a brawl ensued. King alleges that Allen had placed him in a chokehold that caused him to lose consciousness for several seconds. Meanwhile, the Justice Department said King fought with the officers and violently resisted arrest, including biting Allen in the arm. In order to force King to release his bite, Allen began punching the student in the head and face. The arrest was captured on video by passersby who called police.

King was later charged and acquitted for resisting arrest and assaulting the officers. He then sued the two officers for violating his constitutional rights including an unreasonable search and seizure. He also sued the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which waives the sovereign immunity of the United States in certain types of lawsuits where a federal government entity and federal employees who, while acting within the scope of their employment, have caused injuries.

The main obstacle, in this case, is that the officers were working in a state-federal police task force. A person who sues state or local law enforcement officers for excessive use of force would sue under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code (section 1983). Meanwhile, when suing federal law enforcement officers, a person could try bringing a Bivens claim, which gives private citizens the implied right to sue a federal officer, acting under federal authority, who had violated the Constitution for damages. The doctrine came out of the 1971 Supreme Court case Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents. King sued the officers—one being local and the other federal—under both options.

The district court dismissed all of King’s claims, including his FTCA case against the federal government. The court found that King had not shown enough facts to show that officers’ actions could support “liab[ility] to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” The court also found that Allen was acting as a federal officer, therefore, which would only trigger a Bivens claim. However, the court subsequently dismissed that claim as well.

King then appealed the decisions against the two officers at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit but decided to drop his FTCA claim against the federal government.

Before the 6th Circuit, the officers argued that the district court’s dismissal of the FTCA case against the federal government triggered a provision under the FTCA, which blocks a plaintiff from bringing further claims against the employee of the government involving the same facts of a case after a judgment has been rendered on the FTCA claim.

The 6th Circuit rejected the officers’ argument that King’s Bivens claim would be blocked due to the judgment on the FTCA claim. The circuit court also held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that insulates government officials from being sued for actions performed within their official capacity—and remanded the case back to proceed with King’s Bivens claim.

The Justice Department then appealed the case to the Supreme Court. King also appealed to the top court asking them to review whether the officers who are in state-federal joint task forces could be sued under section 1983 as well.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the government’s request (pdf) on Monday but denied King’s cross-appeal (pdf).

The Institute for Justice (IJ), who represents King and characterized the government’s arguments as a “shell game,” said in a statement following the top court’s decision that “asserting that simply bringing an FTCA claim is like stepping on a tripwire that destroys your constitutional claims.”

“We hope the Court will reject the government’s request for yet another way to shield officers from constitutional accountability,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “Because members of joint federal-state task forces have power under both state and federal law, they should be more accountable, not less, when they use that power to violate the Constitution.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to our request to comment.

Follow Janita on Twitter: @janitakan