Oral argument: October 29, 2007
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit (Oct. 19, 2006)
PRISONERS' RIGHTS, STATUTORY INTERPRETATION, SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY, FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT, LOSS OF PROPERTY
Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali, a federal prisoner, claimed that prison officers removed several religious and personal items from his luggage in the course of his prison transfer. After the Bureau of Prisons denied Ali's administrative tort claim for the value of the lost items, he sought damages in federal district court. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's finding that the government was exempt from liability for the claim under the doctrine of sovereign immunity because United States prison officers fit within the Federal Tort Claims Act's "any other law enforcement officer" exception for claims based on the detention of property. Ali contends that this exception applies only to officers acting in a tax or customs capacity. The Bureau of Prisons maintains that the exception covers any type of law enforcement officer. A resolution of the current circuit split over the scope of this exception will have broad implications both for the rights of prisoners whose property has been mishandled and for law enforcement's overall approach to the treatment of citizens' property.
Under 28 U.S.C. 2680(c), the Federal Tort Claims Act's waiver of sovereign immunity does not extend to "[a]ny claim arising in respect of . . . the detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer." The question presented, over which ten circuits are divided six-to-four is: Whether the term "other law enforcement officer" is limited to officers acting in a tax, excise, or customs capacity.
Does the federal government's immunity from private-citizen claims for the injury or loss of goods, merchandise, or property apply to incidents where law enforcement officers are not acting in a tax, excise, or customs capacity?
The United States will waive sovereign immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA") for injury or loss of property caused by the negligent or wrongful acts of a government employee. 28 U.S.C. � 1346(b)(1). The government is liable if the employee is acting within the scope of his employment and if the employee would be liable if sued as a private individual under the same circumstances. � 1346(b)(1). The FTCA provides several exceptions to the waiver of sovereign immunity, including "[a]ny claim[s] arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or customs duty, or the detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer . . ." � 2680(c).
On December 3, 2003, Petitioner Abdus-Shahid Ali, a prisoner under the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons ("Bureau"), was transferred from United States Penitentiary Atlanta ("USP Atlanta") in Atlanta, Georgia, to United States Penitentiary Big Sandy ("USP Big Sandy") in Inez, Kentucky. Brief for Petitioner at 3. Before the transfer, Ali brought his personal belongings to USP Atlanta's Receiving and Discharge Unit ("R&D Unit"), where they would be inventoried, packaged, and sent to USP Big Sandy. Id. Respondent Daniel Quinones told Ali to leave his bags with him because the Unit was insufficiently staffed to complete the inventory process at that time. Id.
After receiving the bags several days later, Ali noticed several religious and personal items were missing. Id. The missing items included two Qur'ans, a prayer rug, stamps, razorblades, and underwear. Ali v. United States, No. 1:04-CV-02986-ODE, 2006 WL 4560162 (N.D.Ga. Jan. 26, 2006), at *2. Reviewing the inventory slips, Ali discovered that Quinones had not inventoried the missing religious and personal items. Brief for Petitioner at 4. When he notified the R&D staff, they told him that he should "sign for what he got," and gave him a Standard Form 95 to file a missing property claim. Id. Ali signed for his property and recorded the missing items. Id.
On December 30, 2003, Ali filed an administrative claim with the Bureau of Prisons to recover the value of his lost items. Ali, 2006 WL 4560162 at *2. The Director of the Southeast Regional Office of the Bureau of Prisons denied his claim, finding that there was no evidence to indicate that he had sustained an injury or loss because of a negligent or wrongful act of a Bureau employee. Id. at *3. Ali subsequently sued the Bureau of Prisons in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Id. The District Court dismissed the claim, finding that the exclusion in section 2680 of the FTCA protected the prison staff defendants. Id. at *4.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 204 Fed. App'x 778, 779 (11th Cir.2006). The Circuit relied upon its holding in Shlaebitz v. United States Dep't of Justice, 924 F.2d 193 (11th Cir. 1991), in which the Circuit found that U.S. Marshals are deemed "law-enforcement officers" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. � 2680. The Circuit reasoned that federal corrections officers also fall under this exception. Id. at 779-80. On May 29, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Ali, 204 F.App'x 778, cert. granted, 75 U.S.L.W. 3636 (U.S. May 29, 2007) (No. 06-9130).
If federal law enforcement officers mishandle a private individual's property, may that individual sue the federal government for the resulting damage or loss? This case specifically concerns a federal prisoner's ability to seek recourse for loss of property under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), but outcome of the case may have broad implications for prisoners' rights and for law enforcement policy.
The Circuit Courts Disagree on the Interpretation of 2680(c)
The Supreme Court last examined � 2680(c) in Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848 (1984). However, Kosak did not clarify whether the phrase "other law enforcement officers" in this section protects federal officers other than tax or excise officers. Kosak, 465 U.S. at 852 n.6. Four circuits have read � 2680(c) narrowly, limiting the exception to officers acting in a tax or customs capacity. Brief for the Respondent for Writ of Certiorari at 9. However, the Sixth Circuit and District of Columbia Circuit rulings pre-date the CAFRA amendments, with only the Seventh Circuit and the Fourth Circuit narrowly construing � 2680(c) since the adoption of CAFRA. Id. at 8-9. In contrast, the Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have broadly read the exception as reaching actions by all law enforcement officers, not just those performed by customs and tax officials. Id. at 8.
Ali maintains that his claim for the value of personal items lost during prison transfer is not barred by the federal government's sovereign immunity from claims based upon the detention of property "by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer." Brief for Petitioner at 7. He argues that the exception to the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity covers only claims relating to "customs or tax enforcement," and thus the government is liable for loss or damage to a prisoner's personal property during transfer. Id.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons ("Bureau") responds that the FTCA's exception language applies expansively to any "law enforcement officer," whether engaged in customs, excise, or any other law enforcement activities. Brief for Respondent at 6. According to the Bureau, the amendments to the FTCA in the Civil Assets Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 ("CAFRA") demonstrate that Congress intended this broad meaning. Id. at 10-11. Thus, FTCA exempts the government from liability for mishandling of property by prison officers acting within the scope of their employment.
The federal circuits have split on the threshold question of sovereign immunity in FTCA claims based on the detention of property. Resolution of this split will harmonize courts' treatment of FTCA claims brought by federal prisoners alleging damage to or deprivation of property at the hands of prison officials.
The government's immunity from FTCA claims would lighten the burden on federal courts to resolve property-related claims in numerous suits that regularly arise regarding prison conditions. However, it could do so at greater cost to injured prisoners. If the Court affirms the Eleventh Circuit's broad reading of the exception provision, federal prisoners would no longer be able to rely upon the FTCA to hold the federal government accountable for the mishandling of their property. The risk to prisoners would be especially acute where, as alleged here, the conduct stems from discriminatory motives.
Furthermore, in the absence of viable claims under the FTCA, an injured federal prisoner's remedial options may be limited. One reason is that the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") bars prisoners from bringing claims in the federal courts until they have successfully exhausted all administrative remedies. 42 U.S.C. � 1997e(a). However, administrative options are controlled by the prison system itself. By the very nature of their legal status and limited access to resources, prisoners are apt to take wrong or incomplete steps in pursuit of prison-conditions claims by relying on whatever information is available to them. In practice, the PLRA may also create perverse incentives for prison officials to shield themselves from liability by imposing additional procedural obstacles on inmates who file administrative claims. Margo Schlanger and Giovanna Shay, Preserving the Rule of Law in America's Prisons, March 2007, at 9.
Law Enforcement's Property Policies
On a broader level, a resolution of the scope of the FTCA's "any other law enforcement officer" exception may significantly affect law enforcement officers' approach to handling private property. Federal government liability for the handling of private property would likely increase the level of care used in law enforcement procedures. Specifically, it could create incentives for closer supervision in the receiving and discharge units at federal prisons.
However, greater care could squeeze tight law enforcement budgets. Moreover, fear of lawsuits from the mishandling of property would potentially "dampen the enforcement efforts" of law enforcement agencies generally. Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848, 859 (1984). As the Supreme Court noted in Kosak, this result is at odds with the FTCA's goal of protecting governmental activities from "disrupt[ion] by the threat of damage suits." Id.
The Federal Tort Claims Act
The Federal Torts Claims Act ("FTCA") is a broad waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity for injury or loss of property at the hand of a government employee acting within the scope of his or her employment. 28 U.S.C. � 1346(b)(1). However, 28 U.S.C. � 2680(c) provides that the waiver of sovereign immunity under � 1346(b) will not apply to "[a]ny 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 by an officer or customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer." � 2680(c).
Congress amended the language of � 2680(c) in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 ("CAFRA"), striking the original words "any goods or merchandise" and replacing them with "any goods, merchandise, or other property." Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-185 (2000). CAFRA also created an "exception to the exception," where the waiver of sovereign immunity will not apply when property is seized by "any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer" under the authority of "any provision of federal law providing for forfeiture." 28 U.S.C. � 2680(c).
Statutory Construction of �2680(c)
The Bureau contends that because � 2680(c) is clear on its face, it should be read according to its plain meaning: sovereign immunity extends to any law enforcement officer. Brief for Respondents at 9. According to the Bureau, the natural reading of � 2680(c) is that the sovereign immunity protects not only customs or excise officers, but also any other law enforcement officer. Id. Because the phrase "any other law enforcement officer" has a straightforward meaning, the argument goes, the canons of construction do not apply. Id. 9-10, 16.
Ali counters that the Bureau's "plain meaning" approach fails to consider the context of � 2680(c) in addition to the language of the statute. Brief for Petitioner at 20. Ali contends that the Court should interpret � 2680 in the context of the customs and tax-focused clauses that surround it. Id. at 13. Relying on the canons of esjusdem generis, noscitur a sociis, and the rule against superfluities, Ali argues that "any other law enforcement officer" must be limited to officers engaged in tax- or customs-related functions. Id.
Under the canon of esjusdem generis, which means "same sort," when a text lists a series of items, a general term included in that list is limited to items of the same sort. Id. Under this canon, if a sentence refers to tacks, staples, screws, nails, and other things, "other things" must refer to other fasteners. Id. Applying esjusdem generis, Ali argues that "any other law enforcement officer" must be interpreted in light � 2680(c)'s specific references to "officers of customs or excise." Id. at 14. Under this construction, the phrase is limited to officers performing a function similar to customs or excise officers. Id. The Bureau responds that "any other law enforcement officer" is not part of a list of items with a common attribute, but is a broader term that includes both customs and tax officers. Brief for Respondents at 18-19.
Under the canon of noscitur a sociis, which means "known by companions," a court must interpret the meaning of a word in its context. Petitioner argues this canon also requires narrow construction of � 2680 because the first two clauses of the section deal exclusively with customs and taxes. Id. at 17. Applying the noscitus a sociis canon, Ali argues that it would be illogical to expand "other law enforcement officers" beyond the context of tax and custom laws employed by the first two clauses. Id. However, the Bureau contends, courts may only use the noscitur a sociis canon if the statutory text is ambiguous or contains strong contextual cues that interpretation should be limited. Brief for Respondents at 21-23. According to the Bureau, neither condition is present in � 2680(c). Id.
Ali also urges that the Court consider the rule against superfluities. Under this canon of construction, courts must interpret statutory provisions so that each word meaningfully contributes to the provision as a whole. Brief for Petitioner at 17. A broad reading of "any other law enforcement officers," Ali contends, would seemingly subsume "any officer of customs or excise" and thus render the phrase meaningless. Id. at 17-18. The Bureau responds by indicating that Ali's interpretation itself violates the rule against superfluities. Brief for Respondents at 24. By limiting � 2680(c) to only customs or tax officers, the Bureau notes, Ali effectively reads out the phrase "any other law enforcement" officers." Id.
The Congressional Intent of the Federal Tort Claims Act
Ali argues that the legislative history and purpose of the FTCA reveal that Congress did not intend to bar his claim. According to Ali, � 2680(c) was originally crafted to address claims arising from customs and tax assessment. Brief for Petitioner at 25. The phrase "any other law enforcement officer," Ali reasons, implicates officers involved in customs or tax enforcement in an ancillary manner. Id. at 32. Ali contends that legislative history reveals that Congress and the Department of Justice never referred to � 2680(c) as applying beyond customs and tax enforcement functions. Id. at 31-32. The Bureau responds that legislative silence is not sufficient to rebut the presumption that Congress intended the "any other law enforcement officer" to possess its plain meaning. Brief for Respondents at 36.
Ali next claims that a broad reading of � 2680(c) undermines the purpose of the FTCA. Brief for Petitioner at 33. Parties injured by the negligence of U.S. employees who are protected by sovereign immunity must bring private claims bills against Congress. Ali argues that Congress originally enacted the FTCA to lighten the burden of investigating, adjudicating, and settling such claims. Id. at 33-34. Ali maintains that the only purpose of the � 2680 exceptions was to avoid stretching the coverage of the Act to claims for which an adequate remedy already exists. Id. at 38 (quoting Kosak, 465 U.S. at 858). Ali points out that customs and tax collectors are liable in their individual capacities as "quasi-bailees," and reasons that Congress exempted such collectors from FTCA liability to avoid giving parties more than one remedy. Id. at 39. However, the argument goes, adequate alternatives remedies would not always be readily available against law-enforcement officers acting in their general capacity. Id. at 42-44. Therefore, Ali concludes, extending the protection from FTCA liability to such officers would frustrate the purpose of the FTCA. Id. at 45.
The Bureau responds that its interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the FTCA. The Bureau indicates that parties injured by the mishandling of their property had a common law cause of action for negligence against all law enforcement officers and not just customs officers. Brief for Respondents at 40-41. Therefore, the purpose of the � 2680 must not have been solely to avoid duplicative remedies. Id. at 42-43. Finally, the Bureau adds, Ali has not established that private claim bills against "other" law enforcement officers burdens Congress. Id. at 44-45.
The 2000 CAFRA Amendment
In response to Ali's arguments about statutory construction and Congressional intent, the Bureau argues that Congress underscored the breadth of � 2680(c) when it passed CAFRA. Brief for Respondent at 10-11. With limited exceptions, CAFRA permits claims arising from seizure of property pursuant to "any" federal law that provides for forfeiture. � 2680(c). This language, the Bureau maintains, indicates that Congress assumed that "any" officers from any agency in a forfeiture situation would be protected by sovereign immunity under FTCA, and passed the CAFTA amendment to nevertheless permit forfeiture claims. Brief for Respondent at 11. The Bureau argues that if Congress had intended � 2680(c) to apply narrowly to forfeitures related to tax or customs, it would have explicitly drafted CAFTA to reflect this objective. Id. at 12.
Ali responds that CAFRA is irrelevant to his case. Brief for Petitioner at 46. The CAFRA amendment, Ali contends, is an "exception to an exception" that only pertains to property claims arising from asset forfeitures. Id. at 46-48. Furthermore, CAFRA does not demonstrate � 2680(c) breadth because the intent of a later Congress cannot be used to infer the intent of the earlier Congress that adopted the amendment. Id. at 48. Finally, Ali concludes, Congress' failure to expressly adopt a broad construction of � 2680(c) under CAFRA that would bar Ali's claim provides further evidence that it did not intend to do so. Id. at 47 n.42.
The Federal Tort Claims Act balances an individual's right to hold the federal government accountable for injuries caused by federal employees with the government's interest in the effective functioning of its law enforcement programs. This case will determine the categorical applicability of the government's sovereign immunity to law enforcement officers' handling of private property. The outcome could have a significant impact on the scope of prisoners' rights and may substantially affect the policies governing law enforcement's treatment of private property in a variety of contexts.
Edited by: Ferve Ozturk
- Congressional Research Service, "Federal Tort Claims Act: Current Legislative and Judicial Issues"
- LII Law About.Prisoners' Rights
- LII Law About.Tort
- Prisoners' Rights Project, "The Prison Litigation Reform Act"