SCOTUS Rules Against an Innocent Man Who Was Choked and Beaten by Cops, but He May Still Get His Day in Court
The Supreme Court today unanimously ruled against James King, a Michigan man who was choked and beaten by a detective and an FBI agent after they mistook him for a fugitive who looked nothing like him. But because the decision in Brownback v. King does not address one of King’s key arguments, it leaves open the possibility that he can still sue his assailants for violating his constitutional rights.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in July 2014, King, then a 21-year-old college student, was walking to a summer job in Grand Rapids when he was accosted by two unshaven men wearing jeans and baseball caps who asked his name and grabbed his wallet. When King tried to flee, the men tackled him, choked him unconscious, and punched him in the face over and over again.
“Are you mugging me?” King asked before trying to get away. As he was being choked and beaten, he cried for help and asked bystanders to call the police, which several of them did.
It turned out that King’s attackers were FBI agent Douglas Brownback and Grand Rapids detective Todd Allen, members of a fugitive task force. They were looking for a 26-year-old man named Aaron Davison, who allegedly had stolen liquor and empty soda cans from his former employer’s apartment. They had a driver’s license photo of Davison, who bore no resemblance to King:
Since Brownback and Allen were serving on a federal task force, King sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). His lawsuit also included claims against Brownback and Allen for violating his Fourth Amendment rights, a civil remedy authorized by the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents.
FTCA claims have to be viable under state tort law. U.S. District Judge Janet Neff concluded that she did not have jurisdiction under the FTCA because Michigan law gives allegedly abusive officials qualified immunity if they sincerely believed, even mistakenly, that their actions were legal. Neff therefore dismissed King’s FTCA claims. She also dismissed his Bivens claims, based on the FTCA’s “judgment bar,” which says “the judgment in any action” under the statute “shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act
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