A young Michigan man was mistaken for a wanted criminal and assaulted by a couple of plainclothes cops so badly that he needed emergency medical treatment.
That's just where the awfulness began for James King as he was walking in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2014. Six years later, he's still trying to hold the officers involved responsible for their behavior in a case that may be heading all the way to the Supreme Court.
On that fateful July day, a detective with the Grand Rapids Police Department and a special agent with the FBI approached King, mistaking him for a man wanted for breaking into the home of a former employer and stealing. According to King, they didn't identify themselves but asked him questions, then pinned him against their SUV and took his wallet. King says he thought he was being mugged and attempted to run. The two officers then attacked King and beat him unconscious.
Bystanders who watched this happen also didn't realize that King's attackers were police. Some called the police and others filmed. When more police arrived, they ordered bystanders to delete video of the beating (some complied).
Rather than acknowledge they mistook King for someone else, police and prosecutors instead charged him with assaulting the police officers and resisting arrest. They tried to get him to accept a plea deal but King refused, forcing a trial and risking years in prison. While he was completely acquitted by a jury in 2015, the fight bankrupted his family.
King filed a lawsuit in 2016, accusing the two officers, Todd Allen of the Grand Rapids Police Department and FBI Special Agent Douglas Brownback, of violating his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights.
After filing the lawsuit, King and his attorney hit a huge jurisdictional problem. Those two officers were part of a multi-agency police task force, and neither the state nor the federal government are willing to say that the officers were operating under their jurisdictions. Even though the investigation and the crime wasn't a federal crime or the result of a federal investigation, the officers nevertheless attempted to claim federal immunity in Michigan courts.
King was represented by attorney Patrick Jaicomo, who has joined the liberty advocates at the Institute for Justice. They are now petitioning the Supreme Court to stop the police and the Department of Justice from ping-ponging responsibility for how King was treated. Beyond that, King's lawyers are challenging the concept of "qualified immunity" that law enforcement agencies use to shield themselves from lawsuits. The Institute for Justice has put up a page explaining the case and the background behind the lawsuit. They note about the jurisdictional games being played here that:
Applying these protective standards to the officers, the trial court held that James had guessed the wrong claims to bring against the officers, but even if he had not, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they could not have known that stopping, searching, beating and arresting an innocent person violated the Constitution.
Thankfully, the Sixth U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the trial court in every way but one, holding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, but that they had acted under federal authority, not state authority … .
Now, the government has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and provide additional protections for the officers—immunizing them from liability under a new interpretation of the Federal Tort Claims Act. At the same time, James has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the government's new arguments for immunity and end to the shell game that allows officers to violate the Constitution without consequence.
Over at the Washington Post, former Reason editor Radley Balko helps untangle the mess of federal and state legal precedents and notes that the proliferation of these task forces has led to a number of examples where jurisdictional confusion is used to avoid accountability and responsibility. In Missouri, marijuana task forces avoid state-level public records requests by claiming to be federal agencies but then claim to be state agencies whenever anybody attempts to use the federal Freedom of Information Act to get information.
Balko also takes note of the deliberately complex and obtuse civil asset forfeiture law variances between state laws and the Department of Justice's "Equitable Sharing Program." This program allows many state and municipal law enforcement agencies to bypass state laws that put restrictions on how much they can seize and keep from the people they arrest by partnering with the FBI and Department of Justice and using the federal seizure system, with its looser rules, instead. Some states have had to pass new laws forbidding their own police from bypassing state restrictions and going to the feds. Others have allowed it to continue.
It's clear that these "task forces" are sometimes being used to shield law enforcement agencies from culpability for misbehavior and from having to comply with public records laws. The Institute for Justice put together a video explaining the complicated details of King's case in Brownback v. King. Watch below: