Supreme Court

Can Police Task Forces Play Jurisdiction Games To Avoid Liability for Misconduct?

An innocent man was beaten up by a local police detective and an FBI agent. No one wants to take responsibility.


The Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear a case addressing the liability of police officers in task forces when they violate somebody's rights.

In 2014, James King was confronted and then assaulted by law enforcement officers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had mistaken him for a fugitive. Even after realizing their mistake, Michigan officials attempted to prosecute King for resisting the police. He was acquitted, and in 2016 he sued to hold the two officers responsible.

The two officers were part of a multijurisdictional task force. Todd Allen was a detective with the Grand Rapids Police Department. Douglas Brownback was a special agent with the FBI. Because they were employed by two different jurisdictions, a complicated fight followed over who can be held liable and under which laws.

Here's how John Kramer of the Institute for Justice (which is representing King) describes the conflict in Brownback v. King:

This case is fundamentally about the obstacles that the government and courts have placed in the way of citizens trying to make law enforcement pay for intentional, outrageous abuses. In King's case, he brought two kinds of federal claims because he was uncertain of the officers' status as joint agents. First, King brought constitutional claims against the officers themselves. Second, he brought claims against the U.S. government under a statute called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Bringing different kinds of claims is normal in American law. But now the U.S. Solicitor General is taking the position that because James brought claims under the FTCA, he cannot also bring constitutional claims against the officers. In other words, the government is asserting that simply bringing an FTCA claim is like stepping on a tripwire that destroys your constitutional claims.

Both the federal government and King asked the Supreme Court to take up the case. King and the Institute for Justice wanted the court to weigh in on the issue of whether an officer in a multi-jurisdictional task force was operating subject to state or federal law. The court denied King's petition Monday.

But the Court did agree to tackle the feds' request to determine whether that FTCA claim means that King can't use a previous court precedent (Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents) to sue the government for violating his constitutional rights.

It's a messy, complicated case that touches on the many ways police and the federal government manipulate laws and court precedents to try to shield themselves from liability. King was a completely innocent man who was attacked and then prosecuted by officials who did not want to acknowledge their mistake. And now they're doing everything they can to avoid having to make amends for what they did to King.

Reason previously covered this case back in February. Below, watch a video from the Institute for Justice explaining more: