Assault, Battery and Government Liability
Unfortunately, our DoJ seems often to operate in bad faith. An editorial from the NY Times:
Kim Millbrook, an inmate in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, alleged that in 2010, he was beaten up and forced to perform oral sex on a prison guard while another guard immobilized him in a chokehold and a third stood watch. Mr. Millbrook contended that the officers said they would kill him if he told anyone about the assault and battery.
He filed an administrative claim with the Bureau of Prisons; it was denied. He then sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which lets people seek redress for assault, battery, false imprisonment and other injuries caused by federal investigative and law enforcement officers. While the government is generally shielded from lawsuits because of sovereign immunity, the statute waives that immunity in some circumstances.
A Federal District Court, however, dismissed Mr. Millbrook’s suit and did not reckon with the allegations. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld that decision last year.
The appeals court said that the government was liable only for injuries committed by law enforcement officers when they are “executing a search, seizing evidence or making arrests for violations of federal law.” While Mr. Millbrook’s charges were “troubling,” the court said, he could not sue because the alleged assault did not happen during a search, seizure or arrest. The Third Circuit is in a minority among the circuits in interpreting the statute’s provision so narrowly.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Mr. Millbrook’s challenge to that ruling. The Justice Department is now on his side. It opposed him in the lower courts, but it has wisely changed its position. The solicitor general argues that the Third Circuit’s approach improperly limits the courts’ ability to remedy government wrongdoing as Congress intended.
Law enforcement officers are liable for wrongs done “while acting within the scope of their employment,” the solicitor general wrote in his brief, “whether or not they occur during a search, a seizure of evidence, or an arrest.” The legislative history of the Federal Tort Claims Act plainly shows that Congress allowed lawsuits to prevent “abuses” of the kind Mr. Millbrook alleges, and intended such suits to apply to “any case” when the abuse was committed by a law enforcement agent on the job.
The Supreme Court should send the case back to the Federal District Court to give Mr. Millbrook the opportunity to prove his claim under this more realistic standard.