High Court Blocks Suit Over Mistaken-Identity Arrest

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court gutted a lawsuit Thursday from a 21-year-old college student arrested for resisting arrest in a case of mistaken identity.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that James King became barred from pursuing any other claims against his arresting officers once the District Court ruled against his bid for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The law includes a provision known as the judgment bar that says judgment in the action precludes further action against government agents whose actions “gave rise to the claim.”

“We conclude that the District Court’s order was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar,” Thomas wrote.

The arrest occurred at gas station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where members of a police and FBI task force were lying in wait to nab Aaron Davison, a fugitive wanted for felony home invasion.

Apparently Davison visited the station almost every day to buy a soda.

When the officers saw King, a young white male matching Davison’s description, an agent and a detective dressed in plainclothes initiated a stop. It was only after the confrontation became a violent arrest, however, that they learned they had the wrong guy.

King was arrested for his resistance and later acquitted.

Patrick Jaicomo, an Institute of Justice attorney representing King, took heart after the ruling in footnote where the justices opted not to wade into whether the judgment bar prevents King’s constitutional claims — an “alternative argument” that they said the Sixth Circuit should decide.

“King’s case is still very much alive and along with it, the important issues of constitutional accountability it presents,” Jaicomo wrote in an email Thursday. “The Sixth Circuit will have to decide in the first instance whether centuries of common-law apply in this case or whether an enormous exception should be carved into American legal history just because a government worker is the defendant in a lawsuit.”

In addition to raising claims under the FTCA, King accused the officers, Douglass Brownback and Todd Allen, of infringing upon his constitutional rights in violation of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a 1971 case giving Americans the right to sue federal officers for those violations. Webster Bivens was a New York resident, believed to be a wanted narcotics suspect, when agents burst into his home without a warrant and arrested him.

After the District Court ruled against King, the Sixth Circuit kept his Bivens claims alive, saying the FTCA judgments bar had not been triggered. 

Writing for a three-judge panel at the time, U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay tied Detective Allen’s use of a chokehold against King to a 2014 police confrontation in New York that ended with the killing of Eric Garner.

“But regardless of whether the force was justified at its inception, Detective Allen’s use of a chokehold, if proven, would be excessive under clearly established law,” Clay wrote. “The use of a chokehold constitutes deadly force.”

The Supreme Court took up the case last year and held arguments in November before reversing today for the officers.

Thomas found King’s suit barred simply because the District Court’s judgment against him should have been considered a final judgment on the merits.

In the event that the officers could be held liable under state law, the trial judge also noted that they would still have immunity under Michigan law since they acted in good faith.

Thomas said the waters became somewhat muddied though because “the District Court passed on the substance of King’s FTCA claims and found them implausible.”

“In doing so, the District Court also determined that it lacked jurisdiction,” Thomas continued. “But an on-the-merits judgment can still trigger the judgment bar, even if that determination necessarily deprives the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.”

The ruling concludes with reference to the 2002 case United States v. Ruiz. “A federal court can decide an element of an FTCA claim on the merits if that element is also jurisdictional,” Thomas wrote, because Ruiz says “a federal court always has jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction.”

“The District Court did just that with its Rule 12(b)(6) decision,” the opinion ends.

Representatives for the government did not return a request for comment.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion Thursday in which she emphasized that another case could unravel the holding that the FTCA’s judgment bar applies to claims brought in the same action.

“While lower courts have largely taken petitioners’ view of the judgment bar,” she wrote, referring to the government, “few have explained how its text or purpose compels that result. In my view, this question deserves much closer analysis and, where appropriate, reconsideration. “

Sotomayor used King’s case to show how the government’s interpretation “produces seemingly unfair results by precluding potentially meritorious claims when a plaintiff’s FTCA claims fail for unrelated reasons.”

“Here, 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.”

She added: “If petitioners 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 violate King’s constitutional rights when they stopped, searched and hospitalized him.”

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