Police Stole $225K in Cash and Coins, and the Court Said “Okay”

Police Stole $225K in Cash and Coins, and the Court Said “Okay”

Arlington, Va.—Seven years ago, police officers in Fresno, California, executed search warrants on the homes and business of Micah Jessop and Brittan Ashjian, who owned a business operating and servicing ATMs. Police were investigating a report of illegal gambling. Although neither was ever charged with a crime, police seized nearly $275,000 in rare coins the men owned and cash they used to restock their business’ ATMs. When the investigation was over, police said they’d seized only approximately $50,000 in cash; they kept the remaining cash and the coins for themselves.

Most Americans would say this was a clear-cut case of theft, but when Jessop and Ashjian sued the police, the federal courts threw out their case, citing a controversial legal doctrine called “qualified immunity.” Now, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear their case, and the Institute for Justice (IJ), as part of its recently launched Project on Immunity and Accountability, has filed an amicus brief urging the Court to take up the case and put an end to this dangerous doctrine once and for all.

“No one should be above the law, least of all those who are supposed to be enforcing it,” said IJ attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “And yet, according to the federal courts, police officers who steal money from people cannot be held accountable because the courts have never ruled that it is unconstitutional for the police to steal from someone. No one really believes that theft is a reasonable seizure permitted by the Constitution. The Ninth Circuit’s decision shows how absurd qualified immunity has become.”

After the search, Jessop and Ashjian filed a lawsuit, claiming that government theft violates the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. But both the trial court and the Ninth Circuit held that they did not need to address the issue because—even if the theft was a constitutional violation—the officers were immune under the qualified immunity doctrine.

Qualified immunity traces back to 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced a rule that government officials would be liable only if their specific actions had already been held unconstitutional in an earlier court case. They called the new rule “qualified immunity.” The Court’s decision was a drastic departure from the historical standards of government accountability. At the founding and throughout the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, courts simply decided whether a government official’s actions were unlawful and, if they were, ordered a remedy. It was up to the other branches of government to decide whether the official should be reimbursed (if he had acted justifiably) or not (if he had acted in bad faith).

Unfortunately, Jessop and Ashjian’s case is not an outlier. It is the result of forty years’ worth of Supreme Court decisions that make it effectively impossible to hold government officials accountable, even when they intentionally break the law. The courts are so concerned with protecting the government that they are willing to shield even those officers who act in bad faith.

“It’s time for the Supreme Court to end the failed experiment of qualified immunity,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “The fundamental purpose of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is to protect Americans from government abuses. But thanks to qualified immunity, police can literally come into your home and steal from you, and the courts will shield them from liability. In the brief we filed today, IJ is urging the Court to reconsider the entire doctrine of qualified immunity and revoke the license to lawless conduct it provides.”

The Institute for Justice’s Project on Immunity and Accountability is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the law; if citizens must follow the law, the government must follow the Constitution. In addition to filing amicus briefs, like this one, IJ has also filed three petitions with the Supreme Court on behalf of Americans whose rights were violated by police but were barred from seeking redress due to governmental immunity. Those cases are all pending with the Court.

Reprinted from The Institute For Justice.


Institute for Justice Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Hold Government Officials Accountable For Destroying Idaho Home with Grenades

Institute for Justice Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Hold Government Officials Accountable For Destroying Idaho Home with Grenades

If you tell police they can go into your home, does that mean they can also legally stand outside and pepper it with shotgun-fired tear gas grenades—destroying everything inside?

That is the question asked by a petition to the Supreme Court of the United States filed today by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of Idaho resident Shaniz West.

Shaniz’s nightmare started when she stopped home with her children in tow one afternoon in 2014 to find her house surrounded by five local police officers. They told her they were looking for her ex-boyfriend, who was wanted on firearms charges. Shaniz said she didn’t think he was in her home—he certainly wasn’t supposed to be—but she said that the officers could go in to see for themselves.

Read about IJ’s new Project on Immunity and Accountability

But the officers did not even try keys she gave them: Instead, they called in the local SWAT team and laid siege to the house, bombarding it from the outside with tear-gas grenades. When it was all over, Shaniz’s home and all her possessions were destroyed and (just as Shaniz had said) the ex-boyfriend was nowhere to be found. Instead, the police had spent half a day bombarding and besieging a house that was empty except for Shaniz’s dog, Blue.

With her life in shambles, her personal property either destroyed or coated in a toxic film leftover from the tear gas, Shaniz—who was left homeless for months following the siege—sued to challenge the warrantless destruction of her home and property. The officers defended their actions by claiming that they didn’t need a warrant because Shaniz had given them consent to go into the home. Amazingly, the judge bought the police’s defense.

Government officials are not above the law, and if citizens must follow the law, the government must follow the Constitution—that includes being held accountable for violating it.

—IJ Attorney Josh Windham

The reason is a controversial legal doctrine called “qualified immunity,” which the U.S. Supreme Court created in 1982. Under qualified immunity, a government official can only be held accountable for violating someone’s constitutional rights if the violation is “clearly established.” That means law enforcement officials can only be held accountable if a court has previously ruled that exactly what they did is unconstitutional—thus putting them on notice that they cannot do something, even if that something is clearly unreasonable, unethical, or unconstitutional. So, if a government official finds a new and unique way to violate someone’s constitutional rights, there is little that can be done to hold the official accountable.

“No judge has ever ruled that what these officials did to Shaniz was legal,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “After all, anybody who has ever thrown a dinner party understands that an invitation to go inside your home is not the same thing as an invitation to destroy it. But under qualified immunity, courts say it doesn’t matter whether a reasonable person would have thought they were acting legally. It only matters whether a court has already decided that an official who did exactly the same thing in exactly the same circumstances. If your exact case hasn’t come up before, you’re out of luck.”

In Shaniz’s case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did not find that it was either right or wrong for officers to destroy her house and everything in it. Rather, it simply said that “no Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit case clearly established, as of August 2014, that Defendants exceeded the scope of consent.” And that was the end of the case.

“Qualified immunity means that government officials can get away with violating your rights as long as they violate them in a way nobody thought of before,” said IJ Attorney Joshua Windham. “Government officials are not above the law, and if citizens must follow the law, the government must follow the Constitution—that includes being held accountable for violating it.”

That is why Shaniz has joined forces with IJ to ask the Supreme Court to hear her case and establish once and for all that qualified immunity cannot be used to allow government officials to violate constitutional rights with impunity. IJ, through its new Project on Immunity and Accountability, seeks to ensure that the Constitution provides a government that is limited in fact, not in theory, and that constitutional promises of property rights, free speech, due process and other rights are actually enforceable.

“Shaniz West is just one of countless Americans whose rights have been violated but who has been turned away at the courthouse door by baseless rules about government immunity,” concluded IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “The Constitution is a promise that is meant to be kept, and people who swear an oath to that Constitution should be required to keep it. We at IJ plan to see that they do.”

Reprinted from the Institute for Justice.

North Carolina Surgeon Wins First Round in Fight to Eliminate State-enforced Medical Monopoly

North Carolina Surgeon Wins First Round in Fight to Eliminate State-enforced Medical Monopoly

Today, a state superior court judge denied the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ motion to dismiss a constitutional challenge to a law that bans medical providers from purchasing an MRI scanner without first obtaining special permission—called a “certificate of need,” or CON—from the government. The court cleared the way for the case to proceed, in a first-round victory for Dr. Gajendra Singh who is represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ).

“The court correctly rejected the government’s argument that Dr. Singh needed to apply for a CON before bringing this case,” said IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty, who argued the motion. “No one should have to go through an unconstitutional process in order to challenge it. We look forward to showing that North Carolina’s CON law unconstitutionally favors existing businesses at the expense of Dr. Singh and other medical providers.”

In July 2018, IJ and Dr. Singh, a Winston-Salem surgeon, and his business, Forsyth Imaging Center, sued the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging that North Carolina’s CON law is unconstitutional because it bans medical providers from offering services patients need solely to protect existing providers from competition. In order to receive a CON, providers must persuade state officials that new services are “needed” through a cumbersome process that resembles full-blown litigation and allows existing businesses, like established hospitals, to oppose their applications. Even after a CON is granted, existing providers can appeal the decision. Dr. Singh should not have to go through such a burdensome process just to provide affordable services that patients need.

“This decision clears the way to litigate the question at the heart of this case: Can the state ban Dr. Singh from providing low-cost MRI services for patients who can least afford them just to protect established providers from competition? We’re ready to explain to the court why, under the North Carolina Constitution, the answer is no,” said IJ Attorney Josh Windham, who also represents Dr. Singh.

Dr. Singh opened Forsyth Imaging Center to provide high-quality, affordable imaging services to patients who need them. Through both his surgical practice and personal experience, Dr. Singh discovered that patients in Winston-Salem were struggling to afford expensive diagnostic scans from local providers—and more, that patients were finding it almost impossible to determine their out-of-pocket costs upfront.

So far, Dr. Singh has successfully acquired most of the diagnostic equipment needed to provide these much-needed scans, but he has been prevented by the CON law from purchasing what is often the most crucial and expensive tool patients need: an MRI scanner. There is no reason Dr. Singh cannot provide safe MRI scans, but because the hospital down the street already has an MRI scanner, he cannot buy one. The North Carolina Constitution specifically outlaws state-enforced monopolies and requires that laws be applied evenly to protect citizens’ right to pursue their chosen businesses.

“We are very excited that our lawsuit will continue. I believe in the free market and doctors’ rights to provide affordable care, and the CON law makes that impossible. Winning this case would allow us to expand our services and help more people who are currently trapped in a system plagued by high costs,” said Dr. Singh.

Reprinted from the Institute for Justice.

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