Eleventh Circuit permits sovereign immunity exception for false arrest claim

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] has ruled [opinion, PDF] that a physician who was accused of writing illegal prescriptions could pursue claims of false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution against the federal government. The court held Tuesday that a provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) [text] permitted such claims as an exception to the United States' sovereign immunity. The plaintiff, Dr. Andrew Nguyen, fled Vietnam in the late 1970s, bought a practice in rural Trenton, Florida, after earning US medical licenses, and became a US citizen in 1986. His practice was decimated after he was arrested on suspicion of unauthorized delivery of controlled substances [statute text] in 2000, even though the charges were dropped for lack of evidence two months later. In its opinion reversing a judgment of the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida [official website], the Eleventh Circuit panel wrote:

What happened to Dr. Nguyen's practice is what happens to the established professional practices of medical doctors who are caught committing crimes involving controlled substances. If the record before us is to be believed, however, Dr. Nguyen committed no crime. It is not just that the charges against him were dismissed on insufficient evidence grounds. It is more than that. The record, as it now exists, indicates that Dr. Nguyen's arrest was not based on any evidence of wrongdoing at all. All of the evidence that law enforcement officers had then, as well as now, showed that he was guilty of no crime. They arrested him anyway.
The judges remarked that "[t]he facts of this case show why Congress has chosen to waive the sovereign immunity of the United States in some circumstances."

In 2006, Nguyen reached a settlement with local law enforcement officials who appealed a $1.8 million verdict [Gainesville Sun report] against them for allegedly violating the doctor's constitutional rights. The district court ruled, however, that the FCTA barred Nguyen's claims against the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) [official website], which led the investigation that resulted in his arrest. Although the FTCA generally precludes claims within the scope of a law enforcement officer's discretionary functions, the Eleventh Circuit panel ruled that a 1974 amendment waived sovereign immunity to claims "arising, on or after the date of the enactment of this proviso, out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, abuse of process, or malicious prosecution." The panel noted that Congress passed that legislation in response to public outrage over the drug raids of the homes of two innocent families [Time report] in Collinsville, Illinois, the year before.

 

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