Justices deal loss to Grand Rapids man who challenged officers' immunity

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday dealt a loss to a Grand Rapids man who had sued the government after a 2014 beating in which police mistook him for a fugitive. 

In a unanimous decision penned by Justice Clarence Thomas, the justices concluded the district court's order dismissing James King's claims against the federal government under what's known as the Federal Tort Claims Act barred his separate constitutional claims alleging the officers had violated his rights.

A 2014 photo of James King shows his injuries.

The High Court sided with the government, whose lawyers argued that the "judgment bar" provision of the law prohibits lawsuits against government employees based on the "same subject matter" that has been the subject of a final judgment under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The government's lawyers had argued that a decision in favor of King would have let plaintiffs litigate a lawsuit against the United States to summary judgment, lose on the grounds that the government employees did not do what was alleged of them, and then pursue claims against the same employees using the same factual allegations. 

King's attorney, Patrick Jaicomo, had argued that there was no risk of duplicative litigation if the claims are brought in the same lawsuit, as King's were.

Jaicomo highlighted Thursday a footnote in Thomas' opinion remanding a related issue to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. That issue is whether the judgment bar provision applies to dismissal of claims raised in the same lawsuit.  

"Although today’s decision appears at first glance to deal a blow to constitutional accountability, in reality the Supreme Court teed up the central issue in this case for the federal appeals court to reconsider," Jaicomo said. 

"It is asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to weigh in on whether centuries of common-law practice should apply — or be abandoned — when the issue involves constitutional violations committed by federal police. 

"When it does, our client James King, the innocent college student the officers choked and beat in 2014, will be able to persuasively argue why he deserves a day in court."

The lawsuit stemmed from an incident in 2014 when King, then a 21-year-old sophomore at Grand Valley State University, was walking down the sidewalk in Grand Rapids.

Two officers with a joint federal task force and dressed in plainclothes asked him to step off the sidewalk and questioned him, asking for identification. 

King said he thought he was being mugged and tried to run, then fought back after one of the officers tackled him, calling out for passersby to call the police to help him before one of the officers put him in a chokehold.

"I was choked until unconscious," King said in an interview last year. "When I woke up, I'm still being choked, and I bit down on the bicep that was choking me. That was when he punched me in the head. It's hard and fast and as many times as he could."

King loosely fit a general description of the fugitive that the officers were looking for who had a warrant out for his arrest on home invasion charges — a young white male with glasses between 5 feet 10 and 6 feet 3 inches tall. Their photo of the fugitive, however, was years old.

Prosecutors pursued charges against King for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

A jury acquitted him months later, but he sued the government and the officers under both Michigan law and federal civil rights law, alleging they used excessive force and conducted an unreasonable search and seizure.

A screenshot of a video shot by a bystander shows James King handcuffed on the ground after his run-in with plainclothes officers in Grand Rapids on July 18, 2014.

The district court noted that one element of a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act is that the plaintiff establish that a government employee would be liable under state law; but Michigan law provides qualified immunity for government employees who commit intentional torts but act in subjective good faith.

Attorneys for the officers who beat King argued that they had reasonably suspected King might be their fugitive and were justified in stopping him to investigate.