José Oliva survived the bloodiest year in Vietnam, but he most feared for his life when he was brutally beaten in an unprovoked attack by federal officers in a Veterans Affairs hospital in his hometown of El Paso, Texas that left him with several injuries, two of which required surgery. On January 29, 2021, the Institute for Justice filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to reverse the 5th Circuit decision that ruled federal officers—such as those in a VA hospital—may act with impunity and not be held accountable for their actions, no matter how unconstitutional.
“I feared for my life,” José said. “I survived the bloodiest year in Vietnam, and here I was fearing for my life as these officers beat and choked me in a VA hospital in my own hometown. It was three against one, and they had guns. I knew better than to resist.”
José is a native of El Paso, Texas and a Vietnam War vet, who served nearly three decades in law enforcement, and advocated on behalf of veterans in his hometown and nationwide.
In February 2016, federal police working as security at an El Paso VA hospital assaulted José as he was entering the hospital for a dentist appointment. As a result of the assault, José suffered an injured shoulder and neck, each of which required surgery, along with a ruptured ear drum. The officers charged José with disorderly conduct—a charge that was dismissed.
When José sued the officers, a predictable thing happened. The officers invoked qualified immunity—a controversial doctrine that the Supreme Court invented in 1982 to protect government workers from being sued for unconstitutional conduct. The district court denied the officers qualified immunity. The 5th Circuit, however, agreed with the officers and reversed the district court, holding that even if qualified immunity were not available, José still can’t sue because he was assaulted by federal—and not state—officers.
“This decision is wrong,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “Federal officials are not above the Constitution. The 5th Circuit’s decision disregards Supreme Court precedent and departs from the consensus of other courts of appeals that have considered this same issue. As a result, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are now constitution-free zones, as far as federal police are concerned. And there are more than 17,000 federal police who work within the jurisdiction of the 5th Circuit.”
The Institute for Justice is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the 5th Circuit’s decision and let the case proceed to trial.
“If the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect a 70-year-old veteran beaten by federal police inside a veterans’ hospital for no reason, it doesn’t protect anyone,” said Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents José.
IJ President Scott Bullock said, “IJ, through our Project on Immunity and Accountability, seeks to ensure that the Constitution serves to limit the government in fact, not just in theory, and that promises enshrined in its Bill of Rights are not empty words but enforced guarantees.”
Jaicomo said, “The Supreme Court will have to decide which court was right in José Oliva’s case: the trial court that ruled the officers should have known they couldn’t beat and choke a veteran in an unprovoked attack, or the 5th Circuit, that ruled that it didn’t matter and the officers cannot be held to account for their actions, thus fully immunizing the federal officers. For the sake of every veteran who goes into a VA facility, José hopes the Supreme Court accepts his case and finds in his favor.”
José’s petition further asks the Court to call for the view of the U.S. Solicitor General. With the new administration in office, it will be important for the Court, as well as the rest of the nation, to know where the chief appellate lawyer for the federal government stands on the issue of accountability for federal police.
As a former law enforcement officer, José’s goal in bringing this lawsuit is to ensure that other law enforcement officers respect the Constitution. When rogue law enforcement agents are allowed to violate the Constitution without consequence, the reputations of good law enforcement officers suffer.
This article was originally featured at the Institute for Justice and is republished with permission.
The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to hear eight separate cases that had presented opportunities to reconsider its doctrine of “qualified immunity.” That doctrine, created by the Supreme Court in 1982, holds that government officials can be held accountable for violating the Constitution only if they violate a “clearly established” constitutional rule. In practice, that means that government officials can only be held liable if a federal court of appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that someone violated the Constitution by engaging in precisely the same conduct under precisely the same circumstances.
“Qualified immunity means that government officials can get away with violating your rights as long as they violated them in a way nobody thought of before,” explained Institute for Justice (IJ) Attorney Anya Bidwell. “And that means that the most egregious abuses are frequently the ones for which no one can be held to account.”
Qualified immunity has come in for harsh criticism from the left and the right alike. And the outrageous facts of the cases rejected today help illustrate why: In them, lower courts had granted immunity to a group of officers who took an Idaho mom’s consent to “get inside” her home as consent to stand outside, bombarding it with tear-gas grenades; to Texas medical regulators who showed up at a doctor’s office and, without warning or a warrant, rifled through confidential patient files; and to a deputy sheriff who (while in pursuit of an unrelated, unarmed suspect) held a group of young children at gunpoint and then shot a ten-year-old in the leg while firing at a non-threatening family pet.
“Qualified immunity is a failure as a matter of policy, as a matter of law, and as a matter of basic morality,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara, who was counsel of record in West v. Winfield, one of the cases denied review today. “It is past time for the Supreme Court to admit as much and start expecting government officials to follow the Constitution.”
The Court’s rejection of the petitions was not unanimous. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissent in the longest-pending petition, Baxter v. Bracey, calling for the Court to reevaluate the doctrine entirely: “I continue to have strong doubts about our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine,” Justice Thomas’s dissent concludes. “Given the importance of this question, I would grant the petition for certiorari.”
The drumbeat of voices calling for an end to qualified immunity and a return to basic government accountability has only grown louder in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Articles in outlets ranging from USA Today to Fox News Channel to the New York Times editorial page all pointed to the slaying as a symptom of a broader culture of official impunity and called upon the Supreme Court to rethink its qualified immunity rules. Today’s decision means those cries will, at least for now, go unanswered.
“There is no shortage of outrageous qualified immunity cases for the Supreme Court to take,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “It has refused to hear a case this year, but it can only avoid the issue for so long. The skewed incentives of qualified immunity guarantee that lower courts will continue to generate more examples of injustice, and we will keep bringing those examples back to the courthouse steps until we break through.”
The Institute for Justice, through its Project on Immunity and Accountability, actively litigates to remove barriers to meaningful enforcement of constitutional rights. Today’s decision denied review in one of IJ’s Immunity and Accountability cases, but a second, Brownback v. King, has already been granted review and will be heard by the justices next term. A third case, brought on behalf of a Colorado family whose home was destroyed by police in pursuit of a suspect who had no connection to them, will be considered later this month.
“The principle at stake is simple: If citizens must obey the law, then government officials must obey the Constitution,” concluded IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “The Constitution’s promises of freedom and individual rights are important only to the extent that they are actually enforced—and the Institute for Justice will work tirelessly to ensure that they are.”
John Kramer is Vice President for Communications at the Institute for Justice. This article was originally featured at the Institute for Justice and is republished with permission.
Arlington, Virginia—This morning the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the case of James King, an innocent college student who was savagely beaten in 2014 by a police officer and FBI agent in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after being unreasonably misidentified as a fugitive. The officers were working as members of a joint state-federal police task force. Ever since the unjustified assault, the government has played what amounts to a shell game to prevent King from holding the officers to account. Now, the nation’s highest court will weigh in on whether to provide the government yet another tool to shield its agents from accountability. The Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents King, will urge the Court to instead allow King to get compensation for his injuries.
This case is fundamentally about the obstacles that the government and courts have placed in the way of citizens trying to make law enforcement pay for intentional, outrageous abuses. In King’s case, he brought two kinds of federal claims because he was uncertain of the officers’ status as joint agents. First, King brought constitutional claims against the officers themselves. Second, he brought claims against the U.S. government under a statute called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Bringing different kinds of claims is normal in American law. But now the U.S. Solicitor General is taking the position that because James brought claims under the FTCA, he cannot also bring constitutional claims against the officers. In other words, the government is asserting that simply bringing an FTCA claim is like stepping on a tripwire that destroys your constitutional claims.
“We hope the Court will reject the government’s request for yet another way to shield officers from constitutional accountability,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “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 government first argued for this novel immunity from liability before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the court rejected the argument and also held that the officers were not entitled to another form of immunity under the doctrine of “qualified immunity.” But before the case could proceed, the U.S. Solicitor General petitioned the Supreme Court to carve out a new form of immunity under the FTCA that would preclude plaintiffs like King from bringing alternative claims under the FTCA and Constitution.
“In short, 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 IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock.
“If our constitutional rights mean anything, we must be able to enforce them,” explained IJ attorney Anya Bidwell. “People shouldn’t face a system rigged against them when they are trying to vindicate their rights, especially when those rights have been so clearly violated, as in King’s case.”
IJ will ask the Court not to create another means for the government to shield officers from constitutional accountability.
“There are already too many, and we are hopeful the Supreme Court will agree,” Bidwell said.
Although the Court accepted the government’s appeal, it did not accept King’s cross-petition in this case. This is the first U.S. Supreme Court case the Institute for Justice will argue before the High Court as part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, which seeks to hold government officials more accountable when they violate individual rights.
Reprinted from the Institute for Justice.
In an historic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court this morning held that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment protects Americans not just against the federal government, but against states and local authorities too. No matter which state you live in, every level of government must now abide by the federal Constitution’s guarantee that property owners will be safe from excessive fines and forfeitures. “[T]he historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Court, “is overwhelming.”
Indiana resident Tyson Timbs is at the center of this legal fight. His road to the U.S. Supreme Court began shortly after his father died, when he received more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds and bought a new car. For years, Tyson had struggled with drug addiction; a painkiller prescription had escalated to heroin abuse. Soon after buying his new car, Tyson sold four grams of heroin to fund his addiction. The purchasers were undercover officers, and police arrested Tyson. They seized his car too.
Tyson pleaded guilty to one count of drug dealing, which led to house arrest, then probation, and $1,200 in related fees. Most importantly, the arrest was a wake-up call for Tyson. He got his life back on track, holding down a job and taking steps to battle his addiction.
Read the rest at ij.org.
Arlington, Va.—In late November or early December, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Timbs v. State of Indiana, a case that will decide whether the U.S. Constitution’s protection against excessive fines applies to state and local governments, just as it has applied to the federal government since 1791. The case involves the forfeiture of a $42,000 vehicle for a crime involving a few hundred dollars. The Indiana Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to only the federal government and does not apply at all to state and local authorities.
“Our client, Tyson Timbs, has already paid his debt to society,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is representing Timbs. “He’s taken responsibility for what he’s done. He’s paid fees. He’s in drug treatment. He’s holding down a job. He’s staying clean. But the State of Indiana wants to take his property, too, and give the proceeds to the agency that seized it. As we explained in our merits brief, there are limits, and this forfeiture crosses the line. We are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling. This case is about more than just a vehicle; it’s about whether 330 million Americans get to enjoy their rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
Nineteen amicus (or “friend-of-the-court”) briefs have been filed thus far in Timbs. Among the more notable amici are:
- The ACLU, R-Street Institute, Fines and Fees Justice Center and Southern Poverty Law Center, which submitted a brief that examines the effect of excessive fines and fees on the poor, as well as the use of fees to raise revenue for the government.
- The American Bar Association’s brief examines how the Excessive Fines Clause protects equality of justice under the law.
Read the rest at ij.org.