On a sunny Friday afternoon in July 2014, James King, a 21-year-old college student, was walking to a summer job in Grand Rapids, Mich., When he was accosted by two unshaven men wearing jeans and baseball caps that called him his name. and grabbed his wallet.
When King tried to run away, the men tackled him, suffocated and knocked him unconscious and punched him in the face repeatedly.
The men turned out to be cops, and for six years King tried to hold them accountable for their actions that day. Next Monday, the United States Supreme Court to consider if he should have that chance. Otherwise, the police will have another legal tip they can use to violate the constitutional rights of people with impunity.
“Are you assaulting me?” King asked before trying to run away. As he was strangled and beaten, he called for help and asked passers-by to call the police, which several of them did.
The attackers, FBI agent Douglas Brownback and Grand Rapids detective Todd Allen, were looking for a 26-year-old man named Aaron Davison, who allegedly stole alcohol and empty soda cans from his former employer’s apartment . They had a picture of Davison’s driver’s license, which looked nothing like King.
Brownback and Allen, who were members of a federal task force on fugitives, nevertheless claimed that they reasonably believed King to be Davison, based on the general description of the suspect and the fact that King was in the same neighborhood where Davison used to buy soda. They also said they identified themselves as police officers, which seems highly questionable given King’s reaction.
“I thought they were trying to assault me,” King told an officer who arrived in response to 911 calls from passers-by. Even then, he asked if the men were “real policemen”.
Because an officer in Grand Rapids ordered witnesses to delete their cell phone tapes of the beating (apparently “for the safety” of “undercover officers”), we have no video of the fight. But testimonies suggest that Allen – who choked King and, after the panicked student responded by biting his arm, punched him in the face and head “as hard as I could, as fast as I could and as many times as I could. ”- was out of control.
“They were pounding her head for no reason,” said a passerby in a cellphone recording. “They’re going to kill this man,” a 911 caller said.
King’s first stop after this heartbreaking encounter was the hospital; his next stop was jail. He was charged with three felonies for assaulting Brownback and Allen, but a jury acquitted him.
After a federal judge rejected the trial that King filed in response to the incident, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year ruled that he could pursue his constitutional claims against Brownback and Allen. He said a jury could reasonably conclude that the cops violated the Fourth Amendment by detaining King without reasonable suspicion, taking his wallet, preventing him from leaving and using excessive force against a man who believed he was assaulted.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the US government argues that King should never spend his day in court, because part of his trial – claims against the United States under the Federal tort law (FTCA) – was dismissed from his post for lack of competence. the king’s lawyers, joined by members of Congress, civil liberties groups and several FTCA experts, Argue that the reading of this law by the government contradicts its clear language and its intention.
Government says law to provide victims of official abuse with additional remedies leaves King worse off than he would have been if it had never been passed: not only can he not use this law ; he has no recourse.
“These officers did something illegal and then charged me,” King said. said. “The system closed around them and helped them out. There is no liability. “
Jacob Sullum is editor-in-chief of Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum.