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Supreme Court On Prison Guard Abuse: Federal Government Can Be Sued For Claims

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the federal government can be sued for abuse claims against prison guards.

The high court ruled for Kim Lee Millbrook, a prisoner at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., who had accused prison guards of sexually assaulting him in May 2010. Prison officials said Millbrook's claim was unsubstantiated.

Millbrook sued the federal government for negligence, assault and battery, but the lower courts threw out his lawsuit. He appealed to the Supreme Court, writing his petition in longhand.

The court accepted his appeal and appointed him a lawyer. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court Wednesday that his lawsuit can move forward.

The Federal Torts Claim Act waives the United States' immunity against lawsuits for civil wrongs intentionally caused by federal representatives, including federal law enforcement officers. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said immunity is only waived when the law enforcement officer is executing a search, seizing evidence or making an arrest.

Thomas said those terms describe what federal law enforcement officers can do, not what they can be sued for.

The exception waiving immunity from lawsuits against the government "extends to acts or omissions of law enforcement officers that arise within the scope of their employment, regardless of whether the officers are engaged in investigative or law enforcement activity, or are executing a search, seizing evidence or making an arrest," Thomas said.

The case is Millbrook v. United States, 11-10362.

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