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Supreme Court Revives Prison Guard Abuse Suit

WASHINGTON (CN) - The United States must face claims that a trio of prison guards forced an inmate to perform oral sex, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Kim Millbrook claimed that three guards of the Lewisberg, Pa., federal penitentiary subjected him to sexual and verbal assault on March 5, 2010.

The guards allegedly led Millbrook to the basement of the special management unit for the attack. Millbrook said one guard held him by the neck to make him perform oral sex on a second guard, while a third guard stood watch by the door.

In its defense, the U.S. government said that Millbrook's claim was found to be unsubstantiated in an internal investigation, which included a medical assessment.

It also noted that the alleged attack occurred one day after Millbrook had fought with his cellmate, an altercation that led the prison to restrain Millbrook and seclude him for injury assessment.

Millbrook's complaint alleged violation of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), codified at Section 1346(b), noting the waiver of immunity in Section 2680(h) for tort suits based on certain intentional torts committed by federal law enforcement officers.

A federal judge granted the U.S. government summary judgment in 2011, and the 3rd Circuit affirmed in April 2012.

Both courts called the alleged conduct of the guards "troubling," but they said that circuit precedent established in 1986 with Pooler v. United States precluded Millbrook's claim.

Pooler limited claims that arise under Section 2680(h) "in which an intentional tort is committed by a law enforcement or investigative officer while executing a search, seizing evidence, or making arrests for violations of federal law," according to 2012 Millbrook ruling.

It also said said Pooler limited the term "seizure" to the seizure of evidence, without leaving room for the alleged unconstitutional seizure of a person, which would cover the allegation that the guards handcuffed Millbrook and brought him to the basement.

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case in September 2012 and reversed Wednesday, finding the immunity waiver is not limited to tortious conduct that occurs in the course of executing a search, seizing evidence or making an arrest.

"None of these interpretations finds any support in the text of the statute," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the unanimous court.

"By its terms, this provision focuses on the status of persons whose con­duct may be actionable, not the types of activities that may give rise to a tort claim against the United States," he added (emphasis in original). "The proviso thus distinguishes between the acts for which immunity is waived (e.g., assault and battery), and the class of persons whose acts may give rise to an actionable FTCA claim. The plain text confirms that Congress in­tended immunity determinations to depend on a federal officer's legal authority, not on a particular exercise of that authority. Consequently, there is no basis for concluding that a law enforcement officer's intentional tort must oc­cur in the course of executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest in order to subject the United States to liability.

"Nor does the text of the proviso provide any indication that the officer must be engaged in 'investigative or law enforcement activity.' Indeed, the text never uses the term."

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