27 March 2013

Law in Plain English: Millbrook v. United States

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

For an earlier discussion of sovereign immunity in relation to this case, see here. For an earlier discussion of sovereign immunity related to other cases, see here.



Millbrook is a prisoner that alleged he was sexually assaulted by corrections officers. He filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives the Government’s sovereign immunity from tort suits, including those based on certain intentional torts committed by federal law enforcement officers "who [are] empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law." This section is  referred to as the "law enforcement proviso." The question before the Court was whether the FTCA waived sovereign immunity for the intentional torts of prison guards when they were acting within the scope of their employment but were not actually exercising authority to "execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law." In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the waiver of sovereign immunity effected by the law enforcement proviso extended to acts or omissions of law enforcement officers that arose within the scope of their employment, regardless of whether the officers were engaged in investigative or law enforcement activity, or were executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest. As a result, Millbrook's suit can go forward. The practical impact of this decision is that prisoners will be able to bring claims against prison guards or other law enforcement officers for any conduct that arises within the scope of their employment, regardless of whether it was investigative or law enforcement activity, or executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest.
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