You probably don’t know it, but federal agents are working closely with police where you live. Over the past few decades, joint task forces staffed by both state and federal police have become common. They now number more than one thousand. As a result of these federal/state partnerships, the government often plays what amounts to a shell game that makes it impossible to hold individual officers to account if they violate someone’s constitutional rights by, for example, engaging in police brutality or other misdeeds.
Here’s how it works: The tools an individual can use to hold a government officer to account for violating the Constitution depend on whether the officer was acting under state or federal law. But if an officer acts under both state and federal law—as it does when a joint task force is involved—the question becomes murkier. An officer accused of abusing his federal authority can claim he was actually acting using his state-law authority, and an officer accused of abusing his state-law authority can say he was really acting as a federal officer. Plaintiffs are left guessing and sometimes end up thrown out of court altogether.
James King, a law-abiding college student in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was forced to play this game after he was brutally beaten in an unjustifiable case of mistaken identity. Task force members misidentified James as a fugitive; stopped, searched, beat and choked him into unconsciousness; and then—even after it was clear they had the wrong man—arrested James and charged his with a series of felonies to cover their tracks. After fighting a criminal prosecution aimed at preventing James from vindicating his constitutional rights and sending him to prison, James was acquitted. But that was just the beginning.
When James filed a lawsuit against the officers to hold them to account for their actions, the officers argued they were entitled to several forms of immunity and persuaded the court to throw out James’ case. An appeals court reversed the worst parts of that decision, but the government has now taken James’ case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to shield the officers from any accountability for violating the Constitution. James has partnered with the Institute for Justice to protect the rights of all Americans who encounter federal and state task forces. As part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, James and IJ are asking the Supreme Court to end the shell game and hold officers to account when they violate individuals’ Constitution rights.