When a Grand Rapids, Michigan, police detective and an FBI agent started beating James King, an innocent passerby, he thought he was being mugged, not being questioned as a subject in a criminal investigation. Witnesses who saw the officers pounding James’ head also didn’t realize the two scruffy-looking men were law enforcement. One 911 caller said to the dispatcher, “Oh my god, they are going to kill this man,” as one of the officers punched James in the head, repeatedly.
Six years after James was brutally beaten, he is still seeking justice for the violation of his constitutional rights, with his case being heard at the U.S. Supreme Court next week. But even if James wins at the Supreme Court, this means he will have finally won the right to take the two officers to court and to force them to have to answer for what they did in a court of law; if James loses, he and others like them who have their rights clearly violated by government employees may lose that ability to vindicate their rights in court. Part of what has made James’ fight for justice such a long, uphill slog is the simple fact that the officers were part of a federal-state task force.
It is questionable why the officers even approached James on a summer day in 2014.The suspect they sought was no criminal kingpin wanted for federal crimes. In fact, he was a 26-year old man who had stolen empty soda cans and liquor bottles from his former boss’ apartment. The suspect they sought had light hair and glasses. James was 21 and dark-haired. Still, the officers, in plain clothes, stopped James on the street, questioned him, and then pinned him to their unmarked car.
When one of them reached for James’ wallet, James attempted to escape, justifiably presuming these men were muggers. They then chased him, tackled him, and began beating him. Multiple witnesses saw the scuffle, and took videos, but, in an example of how those in law enforcement often close ranks to protect their own even when they’ve done something wrong, a uniformed officer who appeared on the scene instructed eyewitnesses to delete their videos. After it became quickly apparent that James was not the suspect they sought, one would expect him to be released, almost certainly with an apology. But instead, they handcuffed him to his hospital bed, took him to jail after he was treated for his injuries, and then charged him with several felonies.
After a jury unanimously acquitted James, he sued the officers for the violation of his constitutional rights. James’ case, however, has been a procedural nightmare because of the legal questions surrounding how to sue officers who are working in a federal-state task force.
The number of federal-state task forces has exploded in recent years. There are now more than a thousand under the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice and dozens more overseen by the Department of Homeland Security; they operate in all 50 states. Task forces can specialize in tracking fugitives and targeting drug rings, gangs or human trafficking. At any time, a local police force may have a significant number of their officers engaged in task force work. For instance, the Pensacola, Florida, police department allowed the U.S. Marshals to deputize a full third of its force during a 2019 operation.
Whether these task forces are particularly effective is a difficult question for answer. When the Obama Justice Department tried to conduct a cost-benefit estimate, it found that there weren’t enough records to conduct the study. Astonishingly, the report concluded that, “Not only were data insufficient to estimate what task forces accomplished, data were inadequate to even tell what the task forces did as routine work” and that “state and federal grants were awarded without even the rudiments of performance monitoring.”
The procedures are different for suing a state official versus a federal government official when they violate your constitutional rights. And government attorneys will argue that officers are acting as federal agents or acting as state agents, whichever is most convenient for escaping accountability. And while diligent and careful plaintiffs’ attorneys will try to cover all their bases, getting a case past the procedural hurdles and before a jury is a Hail Mary pass.
In James’ case, the federal appeals court overruled the trial court and held that the officers should not receive qualified immunity, meaning that the court believed that the rights that had been violated were “clearly established.” Overcoming qualified immunity is particularly difficult right now, but in its defense of the officers the government appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court on a separate procedural issue related to the Federal Tort Claims Act.
For non-lawyers, the issue before the Supreme Court can seem dauntingly technical. But at the end of the day, the Court will be deciding whether state-federal task forces can have yet another procedural “out” when officers violate constitutional rights.
Six years since the incident that sparked this legal battle, James still struggles because of his beating and arrest. His employment prospects are hindered because a simple Google search shows that he was charged with multiple felonies. Seeing a police officer can still incite a panic attack. James and many others deserve a chance to argue for accountability in front of a jury of their peers. Many Americans are calling for more accountability for police officers, and state-federal task forces should be part of this drive for accountability. Until they are, victims like James will find it harder and harder to vindicate their rights and hold rogue law enforcement officers to account.