The mistaken seizure of King along a street in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the summer of 2014 led to a severe beating, a lawsuit and, as of Monday, a Supreme Court case.
The justices will consider next term the complicated legal rules that come into play when someone seeks compensation for alleged unconstitutional behavior by law enforcement. In King’s case, there was additional complexity involving state and federal law — Allen worked for the Grand Rapids Police and was on a joint task force with Brownback, a special agent with the FBI.
A federal appeals court in Cincinnati said King’s lawsuit could proceed. But the federal government asked the Supreme Court to review and reverse that decision.
King is represented by the libertarian Institute for Justice, which said King brought two kinds of lawsuits because he was uncertain of the officers’ status as joint agents. One brought constitutional claims against Allen and Brownback. The other was against the government, under a statute called the Federal Tort Claims Act.
But Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the Supreme Court that because King’s claims under the tort claims act were rejected by lower courts, his constitutional complaints must be as well.
King’s “failure to establish the liability of the United States under state law precludes the plaintiff from moving forward on” his claims against Brownback and Allen, Francisco said in his petition.
The Supreme Court has been protective of law enforcement in previous cases and reluctant to expand the instances in which government officials can be sued personally for performing their duties. But the Institute for Justice said the case is important, partly because of the rise of joint task forces such as the one in Michigan.
“The government is asking the court to provide another shell for its shell game that would make it harder for plaintiffs to bring claims against government officers and easier for officers to avoid accountability for their constitutional violations,” said Institute for Justice President and General Counsel Scott Bullock.
King was a 21-year-old college student at the time, walking from one summer job to another. He was in the vicinity of a gas station where the officers had a tip they might spot 26-year-old Aaron Davison, wanted in connection with a home invasion.
The officers were dressed in “scruffy” street clothes, but wearing lanyards with badges, which King said he didn’t notice. They approached King, asked his name and then requested identification. There’s a dispute about whether Brownback or Allen identified themselves as police officers.
They put King against a vehicle, took away his pocketknife and removed his wallet. “Are you mugging me?” King said he asked, and then began to run.
Allen tackled him and pulled him into a chokehold, and King yelled for passersby to call the police. King said he passed out, and when he came to seconds later, he bit Allen’s arm in an attempt to escape. Allen hung on and later testified he began punching King in the face and head “as hard as I could, as fast as I could, and as many times as I could.”
The appeals court wrote:
“As Detective Allen continued to punch Plaintiff in the head and face, several bystanders called the police and began filming the incident. Numerous police officers arrived on the scene, one of whom ordered the bystanders to delete their videos because the videos could reveal the identities of undercover FBI agents. Some of the bystanders deleted their videos, and footage of the actual altercation was never discovered. The surviving footage from immediately after the incident includes one bystander who can be heard saying, “I was worried. . . . They were out of control pounding him.”
King received medical treatment at a hospital and was released. By then it was clear he was not the man police were seeking. Police arrested him on charges of resisting arrest, assault on Allen and other charges. He spent the weekend in jail before posting bond.
King refused a plea offer and went to trial, where a jury acquitted him. Then he filed charges against the government and the officers.
“These officers did something that was illegal and then charged me for crimes, and the system closed around them and helped them get away with that,” King said in a news release. “Reforming the system from the top down so we hold each and every official accountable for their actions would be a great start and a great way for this case to close.”
The case is Brownback v. King.