Police Abuse

SCOTUS Rules Against an Innocent Man Who Was Choked and Beaten by Cops, but He May Still Get His Day in Court

The justices did not address one of James King's key arguments, which the 6th Circuit will now consider.


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:

Aaron Davison (left) and James 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 or omission gave rise to the claim."

In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit revived King's claims against Brownback and Allen, ruling that Neff's dismissal of his claims against the federal government did not count as a judgment on the merits because she concluded that she lacked jurisdiction. The Supreme Court says the 6th Circuit got it wrong. Although dismissing a lawsuit based on a lack of jurisdiction ordinarily does not qualify as a ruling on the merits, Justice Clarence Thomas says in an opinion joined by all eight of his colleagues, in this case the two analyses are intertwined: The jurisdictional determination was based on the conclusion that King had not alleged a viable FTCA claim.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor focuses on an issue that the Court's  decision does not address: Does the FTCA's judgment bar nullify other claims in the same lawsuit, as Brownback and Allen argue, or does it apply only to separate lawsuits, as King maintains?

Brownback and Allen, Sotomayor notes, argue that "any order resolving an FTCA claim automatically precludes separate claims brought in the same action and arising from the same common nucleus of facts." She calls that "a significant departure from the normal operation of common-law claim preclusion, which applies only in separate or subsequent suits following a final judgment." She notes that the FTCA's judgment bar applies to "any action by the claimant," and action usually refers to a lawsuit, as opposed to a specific claim.

Brownback and Allen "contend that the FTCA gives tort claimants a choice that comes with a cost: They can sue the United States and access its deeper pockets, but, if they do, then the outcome of the FTCA claims resolves the entire controversy." That policy, they argue, "preserves federal resources while allowing tort claimants to decide whether to bring FTCA claims at all."

The upshot, however, "appears inefficient," Sotomayor says. The judgment bar is aimed at "avoiding duplicative litigation." Yet "precluding claims brought in the same suit incentivizes plaintiffs to bring separate suits, first against federal employees directly and second against the United States under the FTCA."

Sotomayor adds that the defendants' interpretation "produces seemingly unfair results by precluding potentially meritorious claims when a plaintiff's FTCA claims fail for unrelated reasons." In this case, for example, "King's constitutional claims require only a showing that the officers' behavior was objectively unreasonable, while the District Court held that the state torts underlying King's FTCA claims require subjective bad faith." If Brownback and Allen are right, "King's failure to show bad faith, which is irrelevant to his constitutional claims, means a jury will never decide whether the officers violated King's constitutional rights when they stopped, searched, and hospitalized him."

A footnote in Thomas' opinion says the Court did not resolve this issue because it did not figure in the 6th Circuit's ruling. "We leave it to the Sixth Circuit to address King's alternative arguments on remand," it says.

That leaves the ball in the 6th Circuit's court. "The Court declined to decide the strongest argument we made in this case—that the judgment bar never bars constitutional claims brought in the same lawsuit," says Institute for Justice attorney Patrick Jaicomo, who represents King. "Instead, it is sending that central issue back to the 6th Circuit to decide on remand, and Justice Sotomayor's concurrence highlights many of the arguments we made explaining why the judgment bar does not apply in that context."

In other words, Jaicomo says, "this morning's decision does not finally resolve this case." When the case goes back to the 6th Circuit, "all of the discussion about the merits no longer applies. It will cleanly have the opportunity to hold that claims brought in the same lawsuit do not cancel one another out, based on centuries of common law development."

King is happy with the outcome. "The fight continues, and this time on our terms," he says. "I'm looking forward to being back in court. The officers who assaulted me are not above the law and neither is anyone else, simply by virtue of being employed by the government."

NEXT: ‘Everything Has Been Criminalized,’ Says Neil Gorsuch as He Pushes for Stronger Fourth Amendment Protections

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  1. It’s quibbly crap like this that makes me excuse David Behar’s rants.

    Q. Did you hurt someone or take their stuff?

    A. Pay the consequences. Don’t hide behind quibbles.

    1. Yeah, I hate this shit. Cops grab an innocent guy who looks nothing like the perp they are searching for, beat his face in.

      Take those cops, roll them up in a rug, and let a few guys take crowbars to them for a couple minutes. That’s justice.

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  2. The victim needs to become an LEO then mistakingly return the favor on the judge.

    1. No he doesn’t. If you genuinely care about the issue, then advocate a clear policy for under cover arrests taking into account all possible contingencies.

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  4. They had a driver’s license photo of Davison, who bore no resemblance to King

    Long time ago I’m on my bicycle wearing a denim jacket and the cops stopped me saying they were looking for someone on foot in a military-style jacket. Really? I think they just use these things as an excuse to fuck with people who look nothing like the person they’re looking for. At least these cops were uniformed so I didn’t run away and get a beat down like this poor chap.

    1. LMFAO

      Nice story. You forgot to mention your sweet mustache and the skull decals on your 1980’s rice rocket.

      1. It was a bicycle, not a motorcycle. Learn to read.

        1. LMFAO!!!

          So, at some point in the 80’s, you got pulled over, with a sweet mustache, a denim jacket, skull decals, by two burly policy officers, while riding a bike? Did I get that right? Did you also have the ace of spades wedged in the spokes to give it that authentic sound? Do you also write your own gay porn intros?

          This shit was hilarious. I love it. Love it.

          1. You got the jacket and the bike right. Literally everything else was wrong.

            At least you’re not making comments with substance that address the topic at hand. That would be cause for concern that you had a stroke or something.

            1. Let’s recap:

              Your original comment was a made up story about “how like, totally, the exact same thing almost happened to me.”

              You know how everyone knows your story is bullshit? Because you at the beginning of it your started off on a bike, but made it a point by the end to mention that you didn’t **run** away. In short, you forget in the middle of your bullshit story that you were supposed to have been on a bike.

              1. You are aware that someone can get off a bicycle, right? I’m sorry that your parents glued your ass to the seat, but the rest of us are totally capable of getting off the thing and putting both feet on the ground. Your childhood was rough, dude.

                1. Are you happy? Instead of the article, the entire conversation became about you. That’s what you want, though, isn’t it? That’s a productive conversation. Fake stories about you riding a bicycle, with nothing going wrong, is exactly the same as the real story of the guy in the article getting beaten to a pulp.

                  For the record, nobody believes your bullshit story.

                  1. You’re the one who made it about me. That’s why I thought you’d had a stroke earlier when you made a comment about the actual topic. I was shocked.

                    For the record you look like an asshole when you claim I said my story was “exactly” like the one in the article when I obviously didn’t. And there’s absolutely no reason for me to make something like that up, which again makes you the asshole.

                    Keep it up. You’re not tearing me down. You’re just reinforcing your image as a miserable cunt.

                    1. No.

                      YOU are the one who made it about YOU.

                      “Long time ago I’m on my bicycle wearing a denim jacket …..”

                      That is YOU, making it about YOU.

                      “You’re not tearing me down.”

                      There’s nothing left. You are broken.

                    2. By the way, your Englishman’s breeding is poking through your bullshit again.

                      Take your chap and your cunt back to your mum’s house, you fop.

                    3. Saying “Oh hey, one time I got stopped by the cops who claimed they were looking for someone who looked nothing like me” in the comments of an article about someone who was stopped by cops who claimed they were looking for someone who looked nothing like them is called relating.

                      There’s nothing left. You are broken.

                      Yeah buddy. Tell you what. Give me your address so the next time you make a post that’s on topic I’ll call the paramedics.

                    4. “[I]s called relating.”

                      It’s called making it all about you. But that is what all pathological narcissists do. Sharing personal life details on an anonymous comment board is something I have slammed you about over, and over again.

                      You have nothing to add to the conversation, unless it somehow involves you. And, to top it off, you’re an annoying wanker from the UK pretending to be an American libertarian.

                    5. Seriously dude. You should give some contact info so someone can get emergency personnel to you when you post on topic. That would obviously be a sign of a serious medical event.

                    6. Oy! Wank-ah!

                    7. Mewling quim.

                    8. Are alimony obligations in the UK as draconian and one-sided as they are here?

  5. “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.”

    These alleged heinous crimes definitely warrant Mr. Davison being the target of a federal fugitive task force. We can’t these to law enforcement officials beating the shit out of an innocent man who bore no resemblance to the guy they were looking for. If government officials are held accountable for this kind of behavior, will any of us be able to feel safe at night?

    1. This sounds like an idea for a separate article. I’d certainly like to know why a federal agent was doing anything involved with a routine local warrant arrest in the first place.

      1. Sounds like he was there to provide legal cover for the local cop. They’re all “brothers in blue” as it were, even if the fed doesn’t actually wear blue. A cop is a cop is a cop. One big, happy family.

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  6. Had the victim been…how does Coca Cola say it? Less white. Had the victim been less white there would be a candlelight vigil in DC.

  7. So complicated nobody knows the law or can apply it? Or just gives an out somehow, some way to the government thugs. At this point, even John Adams is reaching for his guns.
    God damn this scum.

  8. >>Aaron Davison, who allegedly had stolen liquor and empty soda cans from his former employer’s apartment

    was it Barney Frank or something? seems the feds were unnecessary

  9. The officers who assaulted me are not above the law and neither is anyone else, simply by virtue of being employed by the government.

    I hope he’s not spending a lot on attorney fees just to find out this isn’t true.

    1. > The officers who assaulted me are not above the law and neither is anyone else, simply by virtue of being employed by the government.

      Oh, you sweet summer child…

  10. I’m confused. I thought the case remanded back to the 6th circuit. Seems to me the Supreme Court is ruling on the law, not the merits of the case.

  11. What’s with this Simon Says bullshit?

    Add to that the Michigan law (assuming it’s correctly represented) limiting relief, and I’d say both Congress and the Michigan legislature need to step up to the plate and make some reforms.

  12. The crime that a federal task force was trying to solve… “allegedly had stolen liquor and empty soda cans”

  13. What is this nonsense? Cops do not beat up innocent people. Therefore, he is by definition not innocent. Who writes such idiocy?

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