After Almost Beating Student To Death, Cops Demand Legal Immunity

A horrific case of police brutality could soon be heading to the Supreme Court. James King was beaten and choked by police in broad daylight, then slapped with three felony charges. He persevered, got acquitted, and sued the officers responsible, only to find himself caught in a legal labyrinth. Now the U.S. Justice Department is urging the Supreme Court to throw out his case entirely, which would thwart justice for James and other victims of excessive force.

Back in July 2014, James was a 21-year-old college student walking to his internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when he was approached by two men. After peppering him with questions, the men shoved James against their car. One of the men then grabbed James’s wallet out of his back pocket. James thought he was being mugged. In a panic, he tried to run away and was screaming for onlookers to call the police. But he was quickly tackled, put in a chokehold, and beaten into submission. James briefly lost consciousness.

“When I was being choked, I feared for my life truly,” James recalled. “It was a moment where everything went black. As far as I know, that is as close as you can get to being dead without being dead.”

Several bystanders were also convinced that James could have died that day. “They’re gonna kill this man,” one person frantically told the 911 operator. “They were out of control pounding him,” said another onlooker. “They were pounding his head for no reason; they were being brutal.”

Only when police backup arrived did James learn that the two men who had stopped and assaulted him were actually law enforcement officers: Grand Rapids Police Detective Todd Allen and FBI Special Agent Douglas Brownback. Members of a joint task force, Allen and Brownback were in plainclothes searching for Aaron Davison, who was accused of felony home invasion and had a warrant out for his arrest.

The officers were on the lookout for a twentysomething white male between 5’10” and 6’3”, with glasses and a thin build—a ludicrously broad description that sounds like it was taken from Dave Chappelle’s police scanner. Allen and Brownback also had a photo of Davison that looked nothing like James.

After the two officers beat James, law enforcement almost immediately began to close ranks. Dash cam video taken after the beating reveals one officer telling bystanders to delete any footage or pictures they took, saying it was “for officer safety.”

James was taken to the hospital, where he was handcuffed to his hospital bed. Yet once the hospital cleared him for release, James wasn’t allowed to go home and was thrown in the county jail. By this point, it was obvious that James wasn’t the suspect they were looking for.

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A photo of James King taken shortly before he was beaten by law enforcement officers in July 2014. INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE

In a just society, the officers would be charged. Instead, James found himself facing three felonies, including assaulting an officer. Prosecutors offered James a plea deal that would let him avoid years in prison. But taking the deal would have also made it practically impossible for James to sue the officers responsible.

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A photo of the suspect law enforcement were actually searching for. INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE

He refused.

His case was heading to trial. But the wait was agonizing. “I spent that whole six months probably the most scared and the most stressed I have ever been in my entire life,” James recalled. And the legal expenses forced his parents to deplete their entire life savings to defend their son. Ultimately, James was vindicated: The jury acquitted him on all counts.

With the threat of criminal prosecution lifted, James was now in a position where he could try to hold Allen and Brownback accountable. In April 2016, James filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. “These officers did something that was illegal and then charged me for crimes, and the system closed around them and help them get away with that,” he said. “There is zero accountability.”

Unfortunately, thanks to a slew of procedural barricades and immunity doctrines, it’s already very difficult to win a lawsuit against a government agent. That problem is only compounded when trying to sue members of a joint task force, like Allen and Brownback. Practically unheard of at the Founding and throughout most of U.S. history, today around 1,000 joint task forces are operating nationwide. This blurring of state and federal authority forces “victims of constitutional violations to play a cruel shell game,” noted the Institute for Justice, which is now representing James.

First, courts had to determine if the task force members should be considered state or federal agents. To cover his bases, James filed under Section 1983, which authorizes civil rights lawsuits against state and local officials, and a so-called Bivens claim, named after a 1971 Supreme Court decision that lets individuals sue federal agents who violate a select number of constitutional rights.

Even though the officers were in Michigan executing a Michigan warrant against a Michigan resident accused of breaking Michigan law, both the district and appellate court ruled that they weren’t acting “under color of state law.” As a result, James couldn’t sue them under Section 1983, only through Bivens. On behalf of James, IJ has filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to reverse those decisions and end “the task force shell game.”

Although both types of lawsuits cover Fourth Amendment violations, unlike Section 1983, Bivens is an “implied” cause of action that has been increasingly “disfavored” by the Supreme Court. Just last month, a narrow majority ruled that a rogue Border Patrol who shot and killed a Mexican teenager could not be sued under Bivens. Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that lawsuits under Section 1983 have a success rate nearly four times as high as Bivens claims.

Second, regardless of whether his lawsuit proceeded under Section 1983 or Bivens, James had to overcome “qualified immunity,” a judge-made doctrine that lets government officials escape liability. Officers are entitled to qualified immunity if plaintiffs fail to show that their rights were violated and that those rights were “clearly established” at the time. At this stage in litigation, courts must accept the plaintiff’s account as true; determining what actually happened is saved for the merits (if the case gets that far).

Incredibly, the district court granted qualified immunity to the officers who beat James, arguing that “the facts alleged in this case do not show that the officers’ conduct violated Plaintiff’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable search or seizure.” Fortunately, that decision was overturned on appeal by the Sixth Circuit, which blasted the officers’ actions.

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James King stands outside the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE

“Any reasonable officer would have known,” the court held, “based on clearly established law, that applying force—tackling plaintiff to the ground, holding him down, choking him, and beating him into submission—was unreasonable under the circumstances.”

“If citizens must follow the law, the government must also,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Anya Bidwell. “Law enforcement officers cannot operate above the law and free from the Constitution.”

Finally, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) does let individuals sue the United States government over personal injuries if they were “caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission” from a federal employee. However, the FTCA doesn’t cover constitutional claims and only applies to torts where a private individual would be liable under the same circumstances.

As part of his initial lawsuit, James also filed under the FTCA, claiming Allen and Brownback had committed six torts under Michigan law: assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the district court tossed those claims, ruling that James failed to properly state an FTCA claim. Moreover, the court held that the officers would be entitled to qualified immunity under state law anyway. James decided not to appeal that specific ruling.

Based on that dismissal, the Justice Department has filed a cert petition urging the Supreme Court to toss James’s surviving Bivens claims. The FTCA has a “judgment bar” that blocks plaintiffs from bringing additional claims that have already been decided on the merits involving “the same subject matter.”

Even though James’s FTCA claims were dismissed on a technicality and were filed at the same time as his Bivens claims, the Justice Department argued that the judgment bar was still triggered. If the Supreme Court grants cert and sides with law enforcement, that would completely end James’s lawsuit and any chance of accountability for what happened to him.

“I know that this extends beyond the two officers that assaulted me,” James noted. “Reforming the system from the top down so we hold each and every official accountable for their actions would be a great start and a great way for this case to close.”

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