Supreme Court Takes Up Suit Over Bungled Soda Stop

WASHINGTON (CN) — After an appeals court revived claims over a student’s mistaken-identity arrest, the Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether the initial dismissal of the case amounted to a merits judgment.

The appeal stems from a gas station stakeout in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where members of a police and FBI task force expected Aaron Davison, a fugitive wanted for felony home invasion, to make an appearance. Apparently Davison visited the station almost every day to buy a soda.

Dressed in plainclothes, an agent and a detective initiated a stop when they saw a young white male matching Davison’s description, but it was only after the confrontation became a violent arrest that they learned they had the wrong guy.

James King was prosecuted anyway for resisting arrest. After he was acquitted, King sued FBI Special Agent Douglas Brownback and Grand Rapids police detective Todd Allen under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Though a federal judge dismissed the case, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed in February 2019.

James King poses outside the Supreme Court. He is suing the FBI and a Michigan police detective for false arrest. The justices said Monday they will decide whether the claims are barred. (Institute for Justice photo via CNS)

Brownback and Allen petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari this fall, arguing that further proceedings are proscribed because the trial court had dismissed the case after a merits assessment. The judgment-bar argument turns on a provision of the FTCA that says “the judgment in an action under section 1346(b) of this title 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.”

Per their custom, the justices granted the writ of certiorari Monday without comment.

King is represented by Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney at Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, who has likened the government’s strategy to a shell game.

“Because members of joint federal-state task forces have power under both state and federal law, they should be more accountable, not less, when they use that power to violate the Constitution,” Jaicomo said in a statement this afternoon.

A representative for the Justice Department did not return a request for comment. As summarized in Jaicomo’s press release, the U.S. solicitor general argues that, “because James brought claims under the FTCA, he cannot also bring constitutional claims against the officers.”

“In other words, the government is asserting that simply bringing an FTCA claim is like stepping on a tripwire that destroys your constitutional claims,” the release states.

Back in July 2014 when they arrested King, the task force had been looking for a 26-year-old white guy wearing glasses, between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-3. They had two photographs of Davison, but one of the photos was seven years old and the other showed Davison’s face obscured by sunglasses.

King was 21, wearing glasses and otherwise fit the general description. As noted in the government’s petition, he initially complied with the stop because of the badges worn by Agent Brownback and Detective Allen. After they took the wallet out of his pocket and commented on its size, however, King asked if they were mugging him and attempted to flee.

James King is pictured in the far-right image, alongside the two pictures police had of a suspect named Aaron Davison. (Institute for Justice photo via CNS)

It is undisputed that King fought with the officers when they caught up with him, biting Detective Allen after briefly losing consciousness in a chokehold. To free his arm from the bite, Allen punched King in the head and face “as hard as he could, as fast as he could, and as many times as he could,” according to case records quoted in the petition.

King’s lawyers say joint task forces involving state and federal police are becoming increasingly common, numbering at least 1,000 today.

“As a result of these federal/state partnerships, the government often plays what amounts to a shell game that makes it impossible to hold individual officers to account if they violate someone’s constitutional rights by, for example, engaging in police brutality or other misdeeds,” the Institute for Justice says on its website.

King cross-petitioned the Supreme Court to address whether members of joint state-federal police task forces are still subject to follow state law. The justices rejected the request Monday, one of dozens of cases denied certiorari in Monday’s order list.

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