IJ launched our Project on Immunity and Accountability earlier this year to defend a simple principle: Government officials are not above the law. If you and I must follow the law, the government and its agents must follow the Constitution. IJ will now advance that argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, which this spring agreed to hear the IJ case Brownback v. King.
Our client James King’s harrowing story is a striking example of what can happen when officials are allowed to evade accountability for abuses of power. In 2014, James, then a 21-year-old college student, was walking to his internship at a local nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when two men in shabby street clothes approached him. Without identifying themselves, the men trapped James against a black SUV and asked him a series of questions. When one of them took his wallet, James concluded he was being mugged and ran. After a few steps, the men tackled him, choked him unconscious, and severely beat him. James screamed for passersby to call the police, and they did. But when the police arrived, James was stunned when they arrested him—not his assailants.
As it turned out, the two men were a police officer and an FBI agent working undercover on a joint task force and looking for a young man wanted for stealing cans and liquor from his boss’s apartment. Instead, they found James, who had done nothing wrong and did not resemble the thief. Adding insult to injury, when uniformed police arrived after James’ beating, an officer forced witnesses to delete video of the incident. The local prosecutor then charged James with several violent felonies. Defending him against the charges cost James’ family their life savings, but James prevailed, and a jury acquitted him on all charges.
In 2016, James filed a federal lawsuit against the officers for violating his rights. In response, the officers asked the trial court to dismiss the case. They argued that they were shielded by qualified immunity—a doctrine the Supreme Court created in 1982 that protects officers from accountability for even the most outrageous constitutional violations. The trial court agreed. James appealed, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, ordering the case to proceed.
Before litigation could resume, however, the U.S. Solicitor General asked the Supreme Court to hear the case—and the Court accepted. Now that qualified immunity cannot spare the officers from accountability, the government wants the Supreme Court to create a new layer of protection for all federal officers. IJ will urge the nation’s highest court to reject that expansion of government immunity and make federal officers more—not less—accountable for their unconstitutional acts.
James’ case is the first in IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability to reach the U.S. Supreme Court and IJ’s ninth trip to the Court since 2002—including four cases in the past two years. A victory for James will stop the government from inventing yet another type of immunity and create precedent we will build on as we fight to ensure that the Bill of Rights is not an empty promise.
Patrick Jaicomo is an IJ attorney.