The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a Michigan man could not sue two undercover FBI agents who he alleged had unlawfully detained and beat him. In the ruling of Brownback v. King, Judge Clarence Thomas wrote the two federal agents were entitled to legal immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946. The decision reverses a ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which found that the agents did not have qualified immunity, and King was entitled to a suit.
In 2014, King—then a 21-year-old student at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University—was walking to his internship job when he was stopped by two FBI agents, Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback, who were searching for a home-invasion suspect. King said he identified himself to the agents, who then reached for his wallet, leading to him believing he was being robbed, he said.
At that point, King said he started fighting back, at which point Allen and Brownback allegedly beat him to the point that blood vessels in his eyes burst. “Oh my God, they’re pounding him in the head,” a bystander who called in the two undercovers to 911 said. “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.”
King was prosecuted for resisting arrest, but was acquitted by a jury.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the majority opinion, but called for further clarification on the FTCA. “If petitioners are right, King’s failure to show bad faith, which is irrelevant to his constitutional claims, means a jury will never decide whether the officers violated King’s constitutional rights when they stopped, searched, and hospitalized him,” she wrote.