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U.S. Supreme Court

Muslim Prisoner Loses Suit Based on High Court Interpretation of ‘Any’

Posted Jan 22, 2008 2:12 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Federal corrections officers cannot be sued for losing an inmate’s property, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The 5-4 ruling held that the officers have immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act, SCOTUSblog reports. The swing voter in the case was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, reports the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

The suit was brought by a federal inmate, Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali, who claimed his jailers lost his copies of the Quran and a prayer rug, the Associated Press reports. The suit claims the lost articles are part of a larger pattern of harassment against Muslims.

The law bars suits against the government for goods detained by customs and excise officers or “any other law enforcement officer.” Thomas wrote in his opinion (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog) that the law bars suits “for the unlawful detention of property by 'any,' not just 'some,' law enforcement officers."

A dissent by Justice Stephen G. Breyer takes issue with that interpretation of the word “any,” saying the context in which the word is used is important.

“When I call out to my wife, ‘There isn't any butter,’ I do not mean, 'There isn't any butter in town,’ ” he wrote. “The context makes clear to her that I am talking about the contents of our refrigerator.”

The case is Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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