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On The Front Lines

Victory: Unanimous Supreme Court Rules that Citizens Can Hold Federal Government Liable for Abuse by Law Enforcement Officers (Police, Prison Guards)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In its ruling in Millbrook v. United States, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that the U.S. government may be held liable for abuses intentionally carried out by law enforcement officers in the course of their employment. The Court’s ruling dovetails with arguments put forward by The Rutherford Institute in its amicus brief, which urged the Court to enforce the plain meaning of federal statutes allowing citizens to sue the government for injuries intentionally inflicted by law enforcement officers.

In striking down lower court rulings, the justices held that the courts had erred in dismissing a prisoner’s lawsuit alleging that three prison guards had brutally and sexually assaulted him. The lower courts justified their ruling under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which allows individuals to sue the government for misconduct by law enforcement officials only if the injury inflicted occurs while the officers are in the course of making an arrest or seizure, or executing a search. In their amicus brief, Rutherford Institute attorneys asked the Supreme Court to protect citizens from government brutality by eliminating the restriction on government liability.

“Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Millbrook will send a strong message to the government’s various law enforcement agencies that they need to do a better job of policing their employees—whether they’re police officers or prison guards—and holding them accountable to respecting citizens’ rights, especially while on the job,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “At a time when the courts are increasingly giving deference to the police and prioritizing security over civil liberties, this ruling is at least an encouraging glimmer in the gloom.”

In 1948 Congress enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) to provide a limited waiver of “sovereign” immunity for the negligent acts of government agents, despite the fact that the United States is generally not liable for injuries to persons caused by the negligent or intentional acts of government employees and agents. The original version of the FTCA preserved government immunity for “intentional torts” such as assault, battery and false imprisonment.  However, in 1974, Congress amended the FTCA to allow the government to be sued for intentional torts by “law enforcement officers.”

In 2011, Kim Millbrook, a prisoner at a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, filed an FTCA lawsuit against the United States alleging that three prison guards had brutally assaulted him in the basement of the prison, forcibly restraining Millbrook and forcing him to perform oral sex. Millbrook’s lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court which ruled that the 1974 amendment to the FTCA allowing for intentional tort claims against law enforcement officers only applies to acts that occur during searches, while seizing evidence, or while making arrests. The district court’s decision was affirmed on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which, relying on prior rulings from the circuit, held that because the 1974 amendment defines “law enforcement officers” as officers “empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests,” the scope of the waiver of immunity for intentional torts applies only where the harmful act occurs in the course of one of those three duties. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this interpretation, noting that the plain language of the law does not restrict the waiver of immunity to acts that occur during searches, seizures, and arrests.


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