(The Center Square) – The highest court in the United States on Monday will hear oral arguments in a case seeking to reform a concept that gave police officers immunity after they nearly beat a college student to death six years ago.
James King, a 21-year-old college student, was walking between his two summer jobs in Grand Rapids, Mich., when two plain-clothes officers asked for his ID in a case of a mistaken identity involving a suspect of a non-violent crime.
After King refused to identify himself, one of the officers, part of a federal and local task force, took his wallet.
King, ostensibly believing he was being mugged, ran away but was tackled and choked when he bit an officer and was subsequently beaten.
Court records show King and the officers dispute whether they identified themselves as police.
King was charged with three felonies but later acquitted by a jury six months later.
“Oh my God, they’re pounding him in the head,” one bystander said in a 911 call.
“It boggled my mind that civil servants who are law enforcement would try to put a kid in prison instead of admitting they are wrong,” King told reporters on Friday.
The first court sided with the police, but that decision was overturned on appeal by the Sixth Circuit Court.
“Any reasonable officer would have known,” the court held, “based on clearly established law, that applying force – tackling plaintiff to the ground, holding him down, choking him, and beating him into submission – was unreasonable under the circumstances.”
The nonprofit Institute for Justice (IJ) is representing King.
In years of legal battles, the government has contended the officers can claim “qualified immunity,” a special legal protection the Supreme Court created in the 1980s to protect government officials unless previous court rulings have prohibited an exact action by police.
On Monday, the groups will argue whether the dismissal of King’s claims against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents his separate constitutional claims against the officers, a feature of the “judgment bar” provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act that prevents multiple lawsuits against government officials based on the same subject matter.
“I think the most frustrating part about this is that if the government wins this case on the merits … what it means is that what those officers did to James doesn’t matter,” IJ Attorney Keith Neely said. “It doesn’t matter how egregious their conduct was, it doesn’t matter how clearly established James’ constitutional rights were.”
King said the incident disrupted his education and the rest of his life since the federal charges still appear on his background checks.
“I want to hold these officers to account for their actions in large part because of the system and how broken it is,” King said in a statement.
“These officers did something that was illegal and then charged me for crimes, and the system closed around them and helped them get away with that. Reforming the system from the top down so we hold each and every official accountable for their actions would be a great start and a great way for this case to close.”
The top court has declined to hear 12 qualified immunity cases in the last six months, according to IJ.
The hearing can be watched here at 11 a.m.
By Scott McClallen | The Center Square
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Reposted with permission