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James King's Story: A Case of Mistaken Identity and a Long Road to Justice

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 31, 2023 3:05 am

James King's Story: A Case of Mistaken Identity and a Long Road to Justice

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 31, 2023 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in this "Rule of Law" Story, James King and his lawyer Patrick Jaicomo from the Institute for Justice tell the story of a extreme case of mistaken identity that led them down a long road to achieve justice.

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And up next, our own Monty Montgomery with a Rule of Law story you won't believe. James King was born and raised in Michigan, and that's where our story begins in the state's second largest city, Grand Rapids. Summer of 2014, I was, I think, 21 years old at the time, going to school at Grand Valley State University. I had an internship at a place called The Geek Group.

I also had a summer job as a low voltage technician. I got out of that job a little bit early that day. I stopped at my house for, made some lunch, and then I walked to my internship. It was only about six blocks away, but I didn't make it there.

I didn't make it all six blocks. So I made it about four blocks, and then I was stopped by two plainclothes men who had asked me who I was. When they asked me who I was, I, perhaps being a little bit naive, but I've always been a little bit pro-social, so I told them who I was. I said, hey, I'm James. What's going on?

What's up? Their immediate response to me telling them who I was was, is that your real name? And I said, yes, that's my real name. And then they asked if I had my wallet on me.

I kind of got a weird vibe from these guys almost immediately. So I said no, which was not the truth. I did have my wallet on me, but I didn't really want to tell strangers that.

So I said no. And then one of the guys boxed me out. One guy like had me step towards him, and the other guy went around side me, and then I was between the two of them. And one man said, oh, if that's true, then what's in your back pocket? And I'm like, okay, I'm pretty uncomfortable right now.

And I was just like, well, it's really none of your business. But the one guy reached into my pants and took my wallet out of out of my pocket. That was the point where I thought that I was being mugged. The men that did this didn't introduce themselves.

I didn't know who they were or what they were after. So I thought I was being mugged and I actually yelled out, are you guys mugging me? And I tried to run, which is where this all goes sideways in a hurry.

Pretty much made it about four steps and it was tackled to the ground. At that point in time, I started screaming and yelling for anybody that was nearby to help call the police. I was yelling, yelling for the police over and over again.

A fight ensued for quite a while. I was not fighting them, but I was fighting to get away. And I was eventually just beaten unconscious and put in chokehold and blacked out. And when the uniformed police officer showed up, I thought that I was saved. I thought, you know, I thought, thank God they're here. I'm going to get out of this.

I thought I was going to die. So, you know, I was relieved and then very surprised when they arrested me and didn't arrest the people that were assaulting me. Because the men who assaulted James weren't muggers. So this was an undercover fugitive task force. A joint task force between a federal agent and a Grand Rapids City police detective. Who had caught the wrong guy. Having seen the person they were looking for much later on, I look absolutely nothing like him. They were working off of a license photo and like an eight-year-old Facebook photo. So their information was exceedingly bad for the job that they were trying to do. I should probably back up and mention that instead of saying, sorry, we were wrong, we got the wrong guy, we shouldn't have done that, they charged me with three felonies.

A felonious assault, fleeing and eluding and assaulting a federal officer. Beaten and battered, James was taken to the hospital, still confused about what exactly was happening. I went right from being beaten to being cuffed and put in the back of an ambulance.

So I don't really, I don't think I pieced it together until much later when I was put in jail after the hospital. And then I was very confused for more than a few days. I'm going to take a moment to sort of talk about this hospital scenario because it's something that I've sort of ruminated about quite a bit in the last six and a half years. But I remember being, I was in the hospital bed and I was handcuffed to the bed and there was a uniformed officer there that was in charge of just watching me. And we had struck up a conversation and we got to know each other a little bit.

He had a daughter that was going to Grand Valley, same school that I went to. And he, I don't think it took him very long to realize that the situation I was in was not right and I didn't belong there. And what happened to me was not okay. I remember he loosened the cuffs on me and was just overall very nice to me up until one of the Grand Valley City Police Detective, his partner, came into my hospital room and sort of made some derogatory comments toward me and then took my notepad that I had at the time. Because I knew I was in trouble. I didn't know what kind of trouble. So I started taking notes as best I could to recollect everything that happened.

And he took that notebook from me, never to get that back. But it was a weird, I could feel the tension in the room as that uniformed police officer who was sort of, you know, understanding that what was happening to me wasn't right. When the other person was in the room, he wouldn't look at me and he wouldn't really speak up or speak his mind. As if, you know, it's sort of like, I don't know how to say it, like almost like you're in a fraternity.

And you can't speak out against one of your own. When he left, that uniformed officer that was in charge of watching me, I saw him want to look towards me and say, I'm so sorry that this happened and I wish you the best, but because there was other police officers there, he didn't. And I saw that moment of hesitation and I thought about it so much because in a weird way, I feel bad for him, for having to see the people he works with do that to people and get away with it and be okay with it. I can barely begin to describe the amount of stress that I was under. Between the time I was charged, put in jail, arraigned, bailed out, and then I couldn't leave the state and had to wait, I think, six months before the criminal trial. So that whole time, and I was trying to go to school, I was trying to be a student, while the whole time thinking, I may go to prison for crimes I didn't commit. So that was certainly some of the most stressful times in my entire life. In hindsight, too, it's one of those things where I couldn't really tell anybody about it because it was such a bizarre thing that nobody really understood. I had some people that would want to hear about it, they would be like, oh, I bet that's not the whole story, what did you really do, that kind of thing doesn't really happen. And in some sense, that's understandable because it sounds, it's such a crazy story.

And to have it happen to me, and I've never met anybody else that has that happened to him, so there's no, you know, I don't have any sounding board for this, and I haven't for six and a half years. Then came the criminal trial against James. The first day of the trial, the prosecution goes first.

So I had to sit there and listen without any avenue of having people understand that what they're saying was not true at all. Basically referring to me as a growling animal, like a vicious criminal, and that I spun around on them and assaulted them and all these just ludicrous statements that it's insane to me that you can work for the public as a police officer and be willing to get on stand and take an oath and lie through your teeth because you don't want to admit that you made a mistake. So at the end of the second day of the trial, the jury went into deliberation, and my attorney told me that he didn't know how long it would take.

It could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days to a few weeks. So I went home, and I don't think I was home for more than 20 minutes, and my attorney called me and said, hey, get back to the courthouse right now. And so I actually beat my parents and my family back to the courthouse, and then the jury's foreperson stood up and said, on all three counts, we find the defendant not guilty. After all that, when I was going to walk out of the courthouse, one of the jurors came up to me, an older woman, and she said, she gave me a hug and said, I'm so sorry for what those officers put you through.

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Here, the police had no reasonable suspicion to stop James in the first place, no probable cause to arrest him, and then they exceeded whatever restrictions on force there might have been even if he had been the fugitive that they were looking for when they tackled him, choked him unconscious, and beat him severely in the head and face. However, there's this wonderful and terrifying doctrine of qualified immunity that the police get to hide behind. So qualified immunity is a relatively recent invention. Basically, from the founding up until the middle of the 20th century, government officials were strictly liable when they violated your constitutional rights, which means they didn't have any excuse. The point that the courts drove home was, we're here to decide the law, and the question of law is whether this person violated your constitutional rights, and if they did, we're going to assign damages for your injury, and then if they acted in good faith, they can ask Congress or their employer to indemnify them by paying them back the damages owed. But in the middle of the 20th century, the Supreme Court carved out its first exception, which it called qualified immunity, and that's very different from the qualified immunity we have today. But in that case, the court basically said, if someone acts reasonably and in good faith, which means reasonably is any person would know that what we did was okay, and good faith was, I actually believed what was happening was okay, then an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, meaning you can't get any damages from them, even though they violated your constitutional rights.

But in the 1980s, the Supreme Court basically inverted that in a case called Harlow v. Fitzgerald, and they said, you know, it's really a lot of trouble to adjudicate these cases because we're looking into whether someone had good faith, and so instead what we're going to do is we're going to get rid of this objective requirement. Any government official, whether it's state or federal, police or non-police, it doesn't really matter, if you allege that they violated your constitutional rights, they can assert qualified immunity, and then the burden is on you to provide a specific case where a court has said basically exactly what those officials did is in fact a constitutional violation. And so the way that it comes in here is we filed a civil rights lawsuit against these officers, and we said, when they did what they did to James, they violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the officers just said, we get qualified immunity, and you can't find another case that's specific enough that shows that at every step of the way along our interaction with James, we were violating his constitutional rights. Which is crazy, because to prevent the police officers from simply getting qualified immunity and your constitutional rights hearing their day in court, you have to cite a past case that's almost perfectly identical to your own. And if there's tiny inconsequential differences, such as if you were laying down and the person in the past case was standing up when you were detained, that's different enough that you can't cite it as precedent.

The police officers get qualified immunity, and your case and your rights get thrown out. The theoretical basis behind all this was that they didn't want government officials to be apprehensive about doing their job because they might get sued, and they didn't want people to act reasonably and end up being held liable for it just because they happened to technically violate the Constitution. And the main problem with that is that that is a policy judgment that's supposed to be made by Congress. And in fact, when Congress passed the civil rights statute in the late 19th century after the Civil War, it didn't create any defense like we see today with qualified immunity. It's very frustrating because you're kind of starting from a weird position, right, where the premise of anything like qualified immunity is that the Constitution shouldn't apply unless. But the entire purpose of the Constitution is to place limits on the government and the things that it can do. And so it makes very little sense to say, yes, the Constitution, which is the law that governs the people who govern us, the Constitution says these people can't do these things, and they did these things, but we shouldn't hold them accountable because they didn't know they shouldn't do those things. And you just have to take a step back and realize, well, that's not how the law works. I mean, if I violate the law and I didn't know I was committing a crime, that's no defense to me.

They know that they aren't accountable. And when you're not accountable, you are above the law. The law is there to hold people to account. And the way it's written right now, the doctrines of qualified immunity, these are extrajudicial and they're immoral. So the rule of law is completely out the window on these cases.

But nevertheless, with the help of the Institute for Justice, James' case pushed forward. The way that played out in the district court, which is the lower court here, the federal trial court, the court agreed with them and it said, there's no constitutional violations here and the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, so I'm going to throw James' case out. Now, we appealed that decision to the Sixth Circuit, which is the intermediate court between the trial court and the U.S. Supreme Court, and we showed them all the cases that we'd found and they actually reversed, which is a fairly miraculous outcome in the issue of qualified immunity because courts tend to favor granting qualified immunity. The thing about qualified immunity is it prevents the court from ever reaching the constitutional question. They can look at the constitutional question if they want to, but they don't have to. And so the frustrating thing is that in a lot of cases involving qualified immunity, a court will throw the case out without ever saying whether officers violated someone's constitutional rights or not. Today, James' case sits before the Supreme Court to be decided, a long six years after he was beaten on the streets of Grand Rapids.

But despite the wait, James thinks he's lucky. My family was as supportive of me as they possibly could have in every way. I didn't come from means.

Most people would not be able to afford this. And if I didn't have the Institute of Justice representing me, and before that, Miller-Johnson, pro bono, I would have not been able to fiscally pursue this litigation at all. But, you know, my Aunt Leanne bought me a suit for the trial.

My parents, you know, spent, my dad took out his 401k, cashed out his 401k for me to get me out of jail. So, yeah, they were certainly there for me, and it was a pretty tumultuous time for all of us emotionally. It's crazy to say that I'm lucky, but I am because I have good representation.

I'm not in jail, and I wasn't killed. And those are not always the case for people that this has happened to. And what a story, and thanks so much to James for telling it, for his lawyer, Patrick Giacomo. My goodness, the work the folks at the Institute for Justice do. And they help defend people's civil rights, and not just on the criminal rights front, but on the civil rights front, particularly in the civil courts, and on the property rights front. And, my goodness, most cops are good.

Most do a really good and hard job. When I was in law school, the arguments we had over qualified immunity were some of the most difficult. Because when a cop goes out, we're putting him in harm's way.

We're literally throwing him into a place where he's got to make a lot of judgment calls. So there are good arguments for qualified immunity, and there are bad ones. But ultimately, we're always trying to make good cops better, and so many of the rules of our Constitution just do that. Because there are rules for cops and limits, and in a lot of other places and a lot of other times there weren't. In a lot of other countries, the cops are the enemy. Here, they're our neighbors and friends. And again, there are some bad ones out there, and that's why we have rule of law. Because they have to be punished as well.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-31 04:55:30 / 2023-05-31 05:05:30 / 10

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