A bitterly divided Supreme Court just gave federal law enforcement a license to steal, in a case called Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons. This case interprets the Federal Tort Claims Act, which sets forth federal employees’ liability for damages. Usually, federal employees are not immune from civil suit when they cause damage, but there are many exemptions that preserve immunity in specific situations.
Mr. Ali is a federal prisoner. When he was transferred from one prison to another, personal and religious items, including two copies of the Koran, were taken out of his bags. Mr. Ali sued for $177, the value of the property. The Department of Prisons claimed immunity from suit, taking the position that all federal law enforcement employees are free to mishandle, lose or even steal the personal property of prisoners, or anybody else.
Remember when President Clinton debated the meaning of the word “is?” In this decision, the justices debate the meaning of the word “any.” Here’s the language the justices struggled with. The exemption from tort liability at issue in the case provides that “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 question presented was, did Congress mean to confer blanket immunity for property-related offenses on the part of any federal law enforcement officer? Or was the immunity limited to officers engaged in tax or customs work?