Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Broad Immunity for Federal Correctional Officers

Interesting decision announced yesterday by the Supreme Court in Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons (2008). In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that "federal law enforcement officers are immune from lawsuits for mishandling, losing or even stealing personal property that comes under their control in the course of their official duties."

"The question was the meaning of the phrase [in the Federal Tort Claims Act] “any other law enforcement officer.” 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?"

The majority, in an opinion by J. Clarence Thomas, chose a broad interpretation, writing "Petitioner’s argument is inconsistent with the statute’s language. The phrase “any other law enforcement officer” suggests a broad meaning. Ibid. (emphasis added). We have previously noted that “[r]ead naturally, the word ‘any’ has an expansive meaning, that is, ‘one or some
indiscriminately of whatever kind,’ (quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.)."

Writing separately in dissent, J. Stephen Breyer noted that it was wrong to focus on the dictionary meaning of the word "any". "When I call out to my wife, 'There isn't any butter,' I do not mean, 'There isn't any butter in town,' " Breyer wrote. "The context makes clear to her that I am talking about the contents of our refrigerator. That is to say, it is context, not a dictionary, that sets the boundaries of time, place and circumstances within which words such as 'any' will apply."

In any event, federal corrections officers now enjoy the same broad immunity other federal law enforcement officers do within the course of their duties. While this is good news for correctional officers and their unions, let's hope the "even stealing personal property" provision is interpreted a little more narrowly for the sake of the inmates.

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