Supreme Court Ruling: No Recourse if The Cops Destroy or Steal Property

Heath Ledger was unfortunately found dead in his apartment in SoHo, NYC yesterday. Only 28 years old. Though I feel bad for his family’s loss, this news will probably dominate the airwaves over the next several days, going head to head with the presidential election as the news of the week.

But don’t sleep. NY Times reporter Linda Greenhouse just reported on a decision of the Supreme Court that may impact any of us who find ourselves subject to police investigation, search and seizure, arrest, prosecution and/or imprisonment.

The case revolved around, as Greenhouse reports “a Abdus-Shahid M. S. Ali, was being transferred from a federal prison in Atlanta to one in Inez, Ky., and left two duffle bags of personal property to be shipped. When he received the bags, religious articles, including two copies of the Koran, were missing. Valuing the missing items at $177, Mr. Ali filed suit, appealing to the Supreme Court after the federal appeals court in Atlanta had dismissed his case…”

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act, which gave citizens the right to sue the United States itself negligent actions of agents of the United States, but it has some exceptions. Mostly it seems to suggest that the exceptions are “based upon an act or omission of an employee of the Government, exercising due care in the execution of a statute or regulation” or “based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty.”

So if a customs agent has to break your vase to find the coke stashed in it, you cannot sue them for damages. But one could argue that in the case of Ali, the government was negligent, and it wasn’t due their needing to “perform a discretionary function or duty.”

Greenhouse reports that the main issue at hand in this case however is that the law also excludes “’any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer’ will be immune from suit for ‘any claim arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or customs duty or the detention of any goods, merchandise or other property.’”

The current Supreme Court seemed to interpret that “any other law enforcement officer” to mean “no law enforcement officer” ever could be found to be negligent under this law–not just those involved in customs work, which basically renders the entire law a moot point by this logic (any lawyers out there, feel free to correct me on this.).

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his decision that the original law “could easily have written ‘any other law enforcement officer acting in a customs or excise capacity’…We are not at liberty to rewrite the statute to reflect a meaning we deem more desirable.”

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