GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Six years after a fugitive task force mistook a Grand Valley State University student as a home invasion suspect, the resulting court battle is headed to the United States Supreme Court.
“Police accountability and reform need to happen,” said James King in an interview with Target 8 via Zoom. “There are whole communities of people who have this kind of problem on a daily basis and have no recourse and no ability to fight back.”
On July 18, 2014, King, then a 21-year-old student at GVSU, was walking on Leonard Street near Tamarack Avenue, heading to his second job, an internship at The Geek Group.
“I didn’t make it all the way there,” King recalled. “I was about two blocks away when I was approached by two plainclothes men who asked me who I was, and I told them that I was ‘James.’”
The court battle over the violent confrontation that ensued could ultimately make it easier for citizens to hold police civilly liable in court.
“They asked if that’s who I really was,” recalled King, who said he told the two strangers that, “yes,” his name was really “James.”
King said he did not realize at the time that the men were undercover police officers searching for a fugitive.
“They asked me if I had a wallet on me. I said, ‘no,’ which was not the truth. But at that time, I’d already gotten a weird vibe and didn’t think it was a good idea to tell two random strangers that I had a wallet with me,” King said.
That’s when King said one of the men stepped behind him and said, “Oh, really. What’s in your back pocket then?”
“This was the moment where I was starting to get a little bit worried and then, the guy actually took the wallet out of my pocket. That was when I realized that I was being mugged, and I went to go run and was ultimately tackled and a fight ensued where I was trying to run away, and I was yelling for the police,” King said.
The two undercover officers, Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback, were part of a joint fugitive task force hunting for a man named Aaron Davison, who was wanted on a felony home invasion warrant.
Detective Todd Allen was employed by the Grand Rapids Police Department and Special Agent Douglas Brownback worked for the FBI.
The officers relied in part on two images to attempt to identify Davison: a 7-year-old driver’s license photo and a picture of the wanted subject playing guitar.
In the latter photo, Davidson was wearing sunglasses and had his head tilted downward toward the guitar, making it difficult to see any identifying features.
Allen, in the report he later submitted to GRPD, said the suspect they sought was a “white male, 26 years old, 6-0 top 6-3, thin build, with short close-cut hair, wearing prescription glasses.”
The task force had developed information that the suspect showed up at a convenient store at Leonard Street and Alpine Alvenue between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily to buy a soda.
They spotted King walking on Leonard, several blocks west of the store the suspect frequented.
Both men later said they believed King, who was walking in the direction of the convenient store, matched the physical description of the suspect.
“We made contact with King,” wrote Allen in his report.
“I produced my GRPD neck badge, holding it out with my right hand towards King. I identified myself as a Grand Rapids Police Detective as I showed him my badge. Brownback held out his FBI neck badge and identified himself to King as an FBI agent,” wrote Allen.
A uniformed officer who responded to the scene following the altercation rode in the ambulance with King.
“While enroute to the hospital and without being asked, Mr. King said, ‘I thought they were robbing me,’” wrote the officer in his account of the incident.
“I then asked, ‘Did they tell you they were police?’ He answered, ‘They said they were detectives and that they were looking for somebody.’ He then went on to say that ‘anyone can buy a badge. They grabbed my wallet and started going into my pockets and I thought they were robbing me.’”
One of the witnesses who called 911 as the scene unfolded on Leonard near Tamarack reported, “two men holding another guy down.”
Another told dispatchers the man on the ground — King — was screaming, “call the police, call the police.”
King said that after tackling him, one of officers put him in a chokehold that caused him to black out briefly.
“I was also hit in the head repeatedly and pretty severely. Burst all the capillaries in my eyes. I sustained some pretty nasty injuries,” King added.
Witness statements corroborated much of Kings’ account.
WITNESS: “OH MY GOD, THEY’RE POUNDING HIM IN THE HEAD”
“Oh my God, they’re pounding him in the head,” a 911 caller said, referring to the undercover officers’ treatment of King. “They’re literally just pounding him in the head. You need to get some officers over here right now. They’re going to kill this man. They look like they’re suffocating him.”
Allen and Brownback later said they were just trying to subdue a man they believed to be the home invasion suspect for whom they had a felony warrant.
“Both Brownback and I believed that this was our wanted subject now lying to us about having ID on his person because he wanted to avoid being identified,” wrote Allen in his report.
“(King) was tough to get control of. He was punching at and kicking both of us. At one point, King bit down on my left bicep as I was attempting to gain control of him. King continued biting for several seconds and continued to bite down harder as he was growling and grunting in an aggressive manner.”
King never denied that he fought the men, acknowledging that he bit one of the officers in an attempt to get out of a chokehold.
“I fought with everything I had to get away,” King told Target 8.
“I was just, I was full of fear. I mean, they hadn’t identified themselves. I didn’t care about what was in the contents of my wallet at that point. I was more worried about, you know, something much worse happening. So, I was trying to run away and save my own life.”
King said he did not find out the officers were, indeed, undercover law enforcement until uniformed police arrive on scene.
“I was very confused when (uniformed officers) did not arrest my assailants and arrested me instead,” King recalled.
King, who came to Grand Rapids from Alpena to study computer science at GVSU, was charged with assaulting, resisting and obstructing a police officer causing injury and assault with a dangerous weapon.
KING CHARGED WITH ASSAULTING POLICE BUT ACQUITTED
Allen reported that King repeatedly swung at him with a pair of handcuffs.
But a jury ultimately found King not guilty on all charges.
Following his acquittal, King filed suit in federal court against Allen, Brownback and the United States, alleging the officers violated his constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force and malicious prosecution.
What followed were several years and hundreds of pages of complicated legal ping pong largely over jurisdictional issues.
“There are a ton of hurdles if someone is trying to sue a government official for a violation of the Constitution,” said Kings’ attorney, Patrick Jaicomo, in an interview with Target 8 via Zoom.
Jaicomo, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, is representing King pro bono as part of the nonprofit, libertarian law firm’s Project on Immunity and Accountability.
“We’ve spent five years, essentially (fighting over) the simple ability to go into a courtroom and have a court say, ‘yes, they violated the constitution’ or, ‘no, they didn’t,’” Jaicomo said.
In an effort to cover every potential jurisdictional base, Jaicomo filed multiple claims, which he was unsure would survive what he refers to as the government’s “enormous shell game.”
“If you sue the government one way, they say you should have sued them the other way. And if you sue them the other way, you should have sued them the first way,” Jaicomo said.
Jaicomo said the jurisdictional question was made more complicated in King’s case because the officers were members of a joint task force that included both federal and state law enforcement authorities.
US DISTRICT COURT: POLICE ACTED IN GOOD FAITH, SHIELDED BY IMMUNITY
United State District Judge Janet Neff dismissed King’s lawsuit, ruling in part that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity under Michigan law because their actions were reasonable and undertaken in good faith.
“The facts alleged in this case do not show that the officers’ conduct violated Plaintiff’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable search or seizure,” wrote Neff regarding one of King’s several claims.
Neff noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had previously held that if officers have a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a person is involved in criminal activity, they may conduct a “brief investigatory stop” of the person.
“Reasonable suspicion for an investigative stop must be considered under the totality of the circumstances,” wrote Neff.
Noting the suspect description available to the two officers at the time, Neff wrote, “The officers identified Plaintiff (King) a while male in his 20s, within the same height range, wearing glasses and walking in the same vicinity (as the wanted subject was known to walk.)”
Neff went on to write that the officers’ identification of King as the wanted subject “while mistaken, had a particularized and objective basis. It was more than a mere hunch… An incorrect suspicion does not necessarily mean an unreasonable suspicion. And the officers’ subsequent interaction with Plaintiff provided support for their reasonable suspicion.”
In her dismissal of another claim, Neff wrote that Allen and Brownback were “acting within the scope of their authority,” and that the acts were “undertaken in good faith” and without malice.
U.S. APPEALS COURT: NO IMMUNITY FOR OFFICERS
King appealed Neff’s dismissal to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed portions of the lower court’s ruling in a divided opinion and reinstated the lawsuit.
“The undisputed facts do not show that the officers’ suspicion (that King was the suspect) was reasonable under the totality of circumstances,” wrote the majority panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The opinion referenced the “vague” description of the wanted suspect, Aaron Davison, when it said, “given the broad swath of the population that matches this physical description… (the) description of Davison alone would not have given Defendants a reasonable suspicion that anyone, let alone Plaintiff, was Davison.”
The panel majority noted that “Defendant’s theory seems to be that they could have detained anybody who remotely resembled Davison’s old driver’s license photograph, given that Davison could have changed his appearance in the seven intervening years.”
“A jury could reasonably conclude that Plaintiff bears no resemblance whatsoever to Davison’s driver’s license photograph, in which case, the photograph could not have supported reasonable suspicion for (an investigative) stop.”
The Court of Appeals panel majority also agreed with King’s claim that (the officers) used excessive force in their effort to subdue him.
The justices noted that a jury could determine that the two undercover officers failed to identify themselves as police officers.
“Indeed, (King) says that he ran away only after asking whether Defendants were mugging him,” wrote the appeals court panel in its ruling.
“If a jury were to credit Plaintiff’s testimony, then neither Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity because any reasonable officer would have known, 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.”
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT SOUGHT SUPREME COURT REVIEW
It was the U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the two officers, that sought a review of the case by the United States Supreme Court.
Attorneys with the USDOJ argued that King’s failure to appeal one of the claims dismissed in US District Court prevents him from going forward on his other claims.
The question for the Supreme Court involves the complex Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows certain types of lawsuits against federal employees who — during the performance of their jobs — commit wrongful acts or infringe on a person’s constitutional rights.
The FTCA includes a provision called a “judgment bar,” which says that any judgment, whether it’s for or against the plaintiff, prevents him or her from going forward on claims regarding the same subject matter against the same government employee.
“The statute thereby ‘prevents unnecessarily duplicative litigation’ after an FTCA claimant has had ‘a fair chance to recover damages for his ‘alleged injury,’” wrote DOJ attorneys on behalf of the undercover officers.
It’s a highly technical issue that, depending on the court’s decision, could make it easier or more difficult, to try to hold police officers civilly liable for their actions on the job.
“What the Supreme Court case is about is the government has now asked the Supreme Court to create yet another special protection above and beyond qualified immunity that will prevent government officials from actually having to answer for violating the Constitution,” said Jaicomo.
The Department of Justice did not respond to News 8’s requests for an interview.
The US Supreme Court is scheduled to take the case up in the fall.