When I was 21, plainclothes police officers — who never identified themselves as law enforcement officers — choked me unconscious, beat me, and arrested me. I had broken no law. Ever since, I have battled a system designed to protect these rogue officers from justice rather than protect my rights. On March 20th, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to decide whether it will hear my case and address the government’s request that the court create yet another level of special protection so out-of-control officers are never held individually accountable for their actions.
In 2014, I was a college student. I was walking down the sidewalk in Michigan, going between a summer job and my internship at a local nonprofit. Two men in jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps approached me. They asked me who I was, and I told them. But they didn’t believe me. One of the men took my wallet from my pocket. Thinking I was being mugged, I yelled for someone to call the police, and tried like hell to get away. The men tackled me, and one of them choked me until I lost consciousness. I thought it was over. When I woke up, I bit the guy in hopes of breaking free. He then punched me in the face over and over, until every capillary in my eyes burst and I couldn’t move.
A system to protect police
I heard sirens and was relieved. The police were finally coming. But relief turned to confusion when the police arrested me — not the men who attacked me. Unbeknownst to me or the many witnesses who videotaped the scene and called 911, the muggers were cops. They were looking for a non-violent fugitive who looked nothing like me.
When uniformed police showed up, the system immediately went into action to protect the officers with no concern for my rights. One police officer forced people to delete their videos of the incident. Others took me to the hospital, where I was handcuffed to my bed and my notes of what had happened were confiscated. Police and prosecutors charged me with felonies, put me in jail, then put me on trial all with the hope that I would settle and therefore not have the credibility to hold these officers individually accountable for their actions. A plea deal was offered on the first morning of trial, but I had done nothing wrong, so I didn’t accept it. A jury acquitted me on all charges.
In 2016, I sued the officers, but once again, the system closed ranks. This time government lawyers argued even if the officers violated my rights, they were entitled to something called “qualified immunity.” Qualified immunity is a non-constitutional rule the Supreme Court created in 1982 that says you can’t sue an officer who violates your rights unless an earlier court ruling found that the very same action by officers was unconstitutional. How on-point does the violation need to be? In one recent case, officers were granted qualified immunity when they let their police dog attack a man who surrendered by sitting with his hands up even though an earlier case found it was unconstitutional for officers to let their dog bite a man who surrendered by lying down. The fact that the suspect was sitting was enough of a difference from the court’s perspective to grant the officers qualified immunity.
The district court agreed with the government and dismissed my case.
Fight for justice
However, a federal appeals court reversed that decision. It ruled that what the officers did violate my rights and there were cases that said as much. Qualified immunity did not apply.
My fight for justice continues now to the U.S. Supreme Court. On one side, I am asking the court to make it easier to hold officers accountable when they violate the Constitution. On the other, the federal government is asking the Court to create yet another special protection for police.
What happened to me could happen to literally anyone, and the one thing I have learned from this terrible process is that the system protects itself. At every turn, the officers who beat me have never had to face the ugly truths of what they did. That day in 2014 changed my life. Now, I’m fighting to change the system. What happened to me should never happen to anyone else.
James King was assaulted by members of a joint federal/state task force. He is appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court to hold the officers to account.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Law enforcement officers must be held accountable