by Scott McClallen
The highest court in the United States on Monday will hear oral arguments in a case seeking to reform a concept that gave police officers immunity after they nearly beat a college student to death six years ago.
James King, a 21-year-old college student, was walking between his two summer jobs in Grand Rapids, Mich., when two plain-clothes officers asked for his ID in a case of a mistaken identity involving a suspect of a non-violent crime.
King, ostensibly believing he was being mugged, ran away but was tackled and choked when he bit an officer and was subsequently beaten.
Court records show King and the officers dispute whether they identified themselves as police.
King was charged with three felonies but later acquitted by a jury six months later.
“Oh my God, they’re pounding him in the head,” one bystander said in a 911 call.
“It boggled my mind that civil servants who are law enforcement would try to put a kid in prison instead of admitting they are wrong,” King told reporters on Friday.
The first court sided with the police, but that decision was overturned on appeal by the Sixth Circuit Court.
“Any reasonable officer would have known,” the court held, “based on clearly established law, that applying force – tackling plaintiff to the ground, holding him down, choking him, and beating him into submission – was unreasonable under the circumstances.”
The nonprofit Institute for Justice (IJ) is representing King.
In years of legal battles, the government has contended the officers can claim “qualified immunity,” a special legal protection the Supreme Court created in the 1980s to protect government officials unless previous court rulings have prohibited an exact action by police.
On Monday, the groups will argue whether the dismissal of King’s claims against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents his separate constitutional claims against the officers, a feature of the “judgment bar” provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act that prevents multiple lawsuits against government officials based on the same subject matter.
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Scott McClallen is a Staff Writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square.