Yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously held in Millbrook v. United States that 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h) — the statute that permits lawsuits against “investigative or law enforcement officers of the United States Government” for claims arising “out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, abuse of process, or malicious prosecution” — means just what it says, reversing nearly thirty years of law in the Third Circuit. So why did the Supreme Court have to tell us that a statute meant what it obviously meant?
The case arose from a prisoner in the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, who alleged “that he was taken to the basement of the SMU and forced to perform oral sex on Correctional Officer Pealer while Correctional Officer Edinger held his neck and Correctional Officer Gimberling stood watch by the door.” “SMU” stands for “Special Management Unit”; if you’ve ever watched a movie or TV with a prison in it, you know SMU as “the hole.”
Millbrook alleged he was assaulted, battered, and falsely imprisoned by three law enforcement officers of the United States. Under § 2680(h), there’s not much more to ask about the case: his claim was exactly the sort of claim Congress sought to permit when it amended the Federal Tort Claims Act in 1974 in response to a disturbing rise in “no knock” raids that destroyed homes and even killed people — without even probable cause or a warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment. (It’s a couple years old now, but this long report from Radley Balko on the rise of paramilitary raids by domestic law enforcement is essential reading — sadly, the problem has gotten much worse in the past 40 years.) The law means, quite simply, that the United States is liable when investigative or law enforcement officers of the United States Government commit those specific intentional torts in the scope of their employment.
In the years since the Act’s passage, the courts have been busy eviscerating it by granting the government and its employees an increasing amount of immunity. In 1986, the Third Circuit decided in Pooler v. United States, 787 F.2d 868, 872 that § 2680(h) was limited to claims where the “investigative or law enforcement officers” were “executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest.” The Third Circuit reasoned: