Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it would hear a case involving a Grand Rapids man who sued the government after he was mistaken for a fugitive and beaten by law enforcement in 2014.
At issue is what’s known as the qualified immunity doctrine, which can shield police officers and other government officials when they’re facing lawsuits accusing them of violating an individual’s constitutional rights.
James King, now 27, was a student at Grand Valley State University in 2014 at the time of the encounter.
He was walking between his two summer jobs, when members of a joint fugitive task force between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the city of Grand Rapids dressed in plain clothes mistook him for a suspect wanted for home invasion, according to court records.
King, then 21, didn’t know the officers were with law enforcement and tried to run away when they stopped him and removed his wallet from his pants. A physical struggle ensued during which King bit one of the officers, and they beat him, according to court records.
A confused bystander who called 911 told the operator: “They’re gonna kill this man. … They’re over top of him. They look like they’re suffocating him.”
Prosecutors pursued charges against King for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer, but a jury acquitted him.
King sued the officers who arrested him and the federal government under both Michigan law and federal civil rights law, alleging that they used excessive force and conducted an unreasonable search and seizure.
Attorneys for the officers argued that they reasonably suspected King might be their suspect and were justified in stopping him to investigate.
The district court dismissed King’s case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year ruled in part that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on some of King’s constitutional claims.
Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor a spokesman for Grand Rapids police immediately responded Monday to requests for comment.
King is being represented by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia.
“We hope the court will reject the government’s request for yet another way to shield officers from constitutional accountability,” said Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.
“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.”
The Associated Press contributed
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