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United States: Supreme Court Rules That All Law Enforcement Officers Are Immune to Suit for Wrongful Detention of Property

(Feb. 2, 2008) The Supreme Court ruled on January 22 that all federal law enforcement officials are immune from lawsuits claiming wrongful detention of property. The ruling arose when a Muslim federal prisoner, Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali, sued officials of Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleging he was harmed when his Quran and a prayer rug were not returned to him during Ali's transfer from one prison to another. The case involved interpretation of an exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives the United States Government's sovereign immunity for claims arising out of most torts committed by federal employees. The exception exempts from the general waiver of sovereign immunity "[a]ny claim arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or customs duty, or the detention of any . . . property by any officer or customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer."

The lower courts ruled that this exemption from the Government's waiver of sovereign immunity barred Ali's lawsuit. The Supreme Court agreed. The majority, in a ruling by Justice Clarence Thomas, stated that the statute "forecloses lawsuits against the United States for the unlawful detention of property by 'any,' not just 'some,' law enforcement officers." In dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by three other Justices, stated that the statute "should not be read to permit appropriation of property without a remedy in tort by language so obscure and indirect." (Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, No. 06-9130 (Jan. 22, 2008) available at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/06-9130.pdf.)