Supreme Court petitioned on police officers’ legal immunity

Full Screen
1 / 3

Institute for Justice

This undated photo provided by Institute for Justice shows James King. A public interest law firm is asking the Supreme Court to consider whether police officers and other government agents should have broad immunity from civil lawsuits. King was a college student at Grand Valley State in Michigan in 2014 when he was beaten. He sued the officers who arrested him, but a judge tossed out the case, ruling that the officers were entitled to immunity for their actions. (Institute for Justice via AP)

ARLINGTON, Va. – James King had no idea that the men who grabbed him and took his wallet were plainclothes officers looking for a fugitive. So he ran off. And when they caught him, he took a monstrous beating.

Bystanders also were confused. One called 911 to report the beating, telling a dispatcher: “They're going to kill this man.”

King, 27, was a college student at Grand Valley State in Michigan in 2014 when he was beaten. He sued the officers who arrested him, but a judge tossed out the case, ruling that the officers were entitled to immunity for their actions.

King's case is one of several taken up by the Arlington-based Institute for Justice in an effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the “qualified immunity” doctrine, which frequently shields police officers and other government agents from lawsuits when they are accused of violating a person's constitutional rights.

“The biggest problem is, these doctrines have no basis in the history of this country,” said Anya Bidwell, one of King's lawyers with the institute. “They are inconsistent with our founding principles.”

The qualified immunity doctrine was first enunciated by the Supreme Court in 1967, and expanded greatly by the court in the 1980s. As it currently stands, officers can only be held liable for their actions if a court has previously found officers liable in an analogous circumstance, Bidwell said.

The Institute also has petitioned the high court to take the case of Shaniz West, whose home in Caldwell, Idaho, was destroyed by officers looking for her ex-boyfriend. They hope to learn as soon as later this month whether the justices will review the cases.

One of the officers sued by King is an FBI agent who was participating in a federal-local task force in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The FBI and a Grand Rapids spokesman declined comment. A spokeswoman for the City of Caldwell did not respond to an email seeking comment.