José Oliva survived the bloodiest year in Vietnam, but he most feared for his life when he was brutally beaten in an unprovoked attack by federal officers in a Veterans Affairs hospital in his hometown of El Paso. If the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect a 70-year-old veteran beaten by federal police inside a veterans’ hospital for no reason, it doesn’t protect anyone. That’s why, on January 29, 2021, the Institute for Justice filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to reverse the clearly erroneous 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which ruled that federal officers, such as those in a VA hospital, may act with impunity and not be held accountable for their actions, no matter how unconstitutional.
José is a native of El Paso, Texas and a Vietnam War vet, who served nearly three decades in law enforcement, and advocated on behalf of veterans in his hometown and nationwide.
In February 2016, federal police working as security at an El Paso VA hospital assaulted José as he was entering the hospital for a dentist appointment. They then charged him for disorderly conduct—charges that were later dismissed.
When José sued the officers, a predictable thing happened. The officers invoked qualified immunity—a controversial doctrine that the Supreme Court invented in 1982 to protect government workers from being sued for unconstitutional conduct. To its great credit, the district court denied the officers qualified immunity—a decision that the officers promptly appealed. The 5th Circuit agreed with the officers and reversed the district court, holding that even if qualified immunity were not available, José still can’t sue because he was assaulted by federal, and not state, officers.
This decision is wrong. Federal officials are not above the Constitution. The 5th Circuit’s decision disregards Supreme Court precedent and departs from the consensus of other courts of appeals that have considered this same issue. As a result, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are now constitution-free zones, as far as federal police are concerned. IJ is not going to let that happen. That’s why we teamed up with José to ask the Supreme Court to reverse the 5th Circuit’s decision and let the case proceed to trial. IJ, through its Project on Immunity and Accountability, seeks to ensure that the Constitution serves to limit the government in fact, not just in theory, and that promises enshrined in its Bill of Rights are not empty words but enforced guarantees.