James Madison, who introduced the Bill of Rights into Congress, later said: “The press has been the beneficent source to which the United States owes much of the light which conducted us to the ranks of a free and independent nation.”
But now, with the flood of information on the Web, in print, on blogs, in social media et al.crucial developments on basic personal rights and liberties are often covered minutely, if at all.
For example, how many of you are aware of the unanimous March 27 Supreme Court decision in Millbrook v. United States, written by Justice Clarence Thomas? It got lost in the media coverage of the same-sex marriage arguments made before the court that week.
The court’s judgment in Millbrook could start to end the immunity of many law enforcement officials who permit the violations of citizens’ constitutional rights.
Herewith are the brutal facts of Kim Lee Millbrook’s case, as retold by John W. Whitehead, who directs the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute. Whitehead submitted an amicus brief supporting Millbrook.
Whitehead notes that while Millbrook was “serving a 31-year sentence, reportedly for drug and gun-related charges along with witness intimidation,” he was “transferred to a high-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa.”
A few days after his arrival to Lewisburg, Millbrook got into a fight with his cellmate, and they were both put in a shower area.Then, according to Millbrook, “three prison guards escorted him to the basement holding-cell area, where one guard choked him until he almost lost consciousness, and a second guard made Millbrook perform oral sex on him, while a third guard stood watch.”
Whitehead continues: “A nonlawyer relatively well-versed in navigating the legal system, Millbrook turned to the courts for relief in January 2011, suing the federal government for $1.5 million in damages for negligence, assault and battery and requesting a transfer out of the Lewisburg facility.”
When his case came to federal district court and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, it was decidedly not received sympathetically. The courts decided that the prison guards could not “be held liable under a provision of the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA), which allows individuals to sue federal law enforcement officials.”
Here we come to the core of this case. Whitehead cites WNYC reporter Ailsa Chang:
“Under the law, the government allows itself to be sued when a government representative commits a tort. A tort is an act done negligently or intentionally that results in injury to someone. However, if the tort was intentional, the law does not allow the lawsuit to proceed — except in cases where the defendant is a law enforcement official.”
The federal district court and the 3rd Circuit, explains Whitehead, dismissed Millbrook’s case on the grounds that “although an egregious wrong may have been committed by a government employee, they cannot be held liable for money damages for their behavior. “Specifically, the courts reasoned that the FTCA only applies to ‘police officers’ while they are in the process of making an arrest or seizure, or executing a search.”
Because those three prison guards were doing none of those things, Millbrook was told, in effect, he had no case. But he disagreed. Millbrook, Whitehead reports, “filed a handwritten petition, to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
And on March 27, the Supreme Court, remanding the case, made Millbrook a citizen again, declaring that the law extends to “acts or omissions of law enforcement officers that arise within the scope of their employment, regardless of whether the officers are engaged in investigative or law enforcement activity, or are executing a search, seizing evidence or making an arrest.”
Whitehead summarizes: “Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s ruling ... will send a strong message to the government’s various law enforcement agencies that they need to do a better job of policing their employees — whether they’re police officers or prison guards.”
Meanwhile, now that the Supreme Court has permitted Millbrook to resume his case against the government for damages, I wish him well.
Nat Hentoff can be contacted in care of firstname.lastname@example.org.