Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

PETITIONER: Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali
RESPONDENT: Federal Bureau of Prisons et al.
LOCATION: Earthquake Park

DOCKET NO.: 06-9130
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 552 US 214 (2008)
GRANTED: May 29, 2007
ARGUED: Oct 29, 2007
DECIDED: Jan 22, 2008

ADVOCATES:
Jean-Claude Andre - on behalf of Petitioner
Kannon K. Shanmugam - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Before his transfer to a new prison, prisoner Abdus-Shahid M. S. Ali temporarily left his two bags of possessions with a police officer. When the bags arrived, Ali noticed that several items were missing. He filed an administrative tort claim with the Bureau of Prisons seeking to recover the items. After the claim was denied, he brought his case to U.S. District Court. The court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, ruling that the government had immunity from the lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA establishes a general waiver of sovereign immunity for tort claims against the government, but it also makes several exceptions to the waiver. One exception is for "[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." Ali argued that in context the phrase "other law enforcement officer" referred only to officers working in customs and related activities, but the court applied the exception to any detention of goods by any law enforcement officer.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Ali's claim. It ruled that the phrase "any other law enforcement officer" in the FTCA was not merely a supplementary catch-all relating to the government's immunity in tax collection and customs situations. Rather, it was itself a broad grant of sovereign immunity covering any instance of detention of goods by law enforcement officers.

Question

In the detention of goods exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity in the Federal Tort Claims Act, is the phrase "other law enforcement officer" limited to officers acting in a tax, excise, or customs capacity?

Media for Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 29, 2007 in Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 22, 2008 in Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Petitioner's personal property was allegedly lost when he transferred or when he was transferred from one prison facility to another.

After exhausting his administrative remedies, petitioner sued the Bureau of Prisons under the Federal Tort Claims Act seeking $177, the value of the property.

The Federal Tort Claims Act waives sovereign immunity for torts committed by federal employees, however, Congress accepted from this waiver claims arising in respect of the detention of any property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer.

The District Court held that petitioner's claim fell within this exemption and dismissed his claim.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed agreeing that the exemption is not limited to law enforcement officers enforcing customs or excise laws.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The text and structure of Section 2680(c) are most naturally read to encompass all law enforcement officers regardless of whether they are enforcing customs or excise laws.

Congress' use of the expansive word “any” to modify other law enforcement officer and it's omission of any restrictive language demonstrate that it intended the exemption to apply to law enforcement officers of whatever kind.

To be sure, the clause preserves immunity for claims arising from officers enforcing tax or customs laws.

But the text also indicates that Congress intended to preserve immunity for property detentions claims like the one at issue here, and there is no textual basis for limiting that immunity to officers enforcing certain kinds of laws.

Recent amendments to Section 2680(c) support our conclusion because the amended statute is more consistent and coherent if it is read to cover all law enforcement officers.

Against this textual and structural evidence, petitioner appeals the canons of statutory construction, but those canons cannot be invoked to clarify ambiguity where the statutes suggest none.

Instead, we must give effect to the text that Congress enacted.

Section 2680(c) forecloses lawsuits against the United States for the unlawful detention of property by any, not just some law enforcement officers.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer have joined.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens has joined.