Case of Missing Koran Turns Supreme Court Into Chamber of Hypotheticals

Arguments before the Supreme Court Monday on a $177 case about a Muslim prisoner's missing religious items started out languid but somehow managed to turn into an argument filled with hypotheticals involving retired tax evaders from the Granite State and Elliot Ness and Al Capone.

The case, Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, called into question the extent to which federal correctional officers are subject to lawsuits under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which holds that a customs or "any other law enforcement" officer is immune from prosecution.

Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali was an inmate at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta prior to his December, 2003 transfer to the federal prison in Inez, Ky. He is serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison for committing first-degree murder in the District of Columbia.

As part of the transfer process, Ali left two duffle bags — containing, among other items, his Koran and a prayer rug — in the custody of federal officers for routine examination before being shipped after him.

Upon receiving the bags after his arrival in Kentucky, Ali discovered a number of personal and religious items, including the Koran and prayer rug, missing. After he was unable to get everything back — valued at $177 — he sued the government.

It seems as though "the many prison employees think that they can hurt you best taking your personally owned property," Ali wrote in his suit. Ali added that because he has "practiced his faith to the fullest" he has been subjected to prison officials repeatedly confiscating and destroying his legal and religious property.

He said he has been harassed for his religious beliefs "year after year" in both the District of Columbia Department of Corrections and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Lower courts ruled against Ali, saying the law enforcement officers who handled his bags were immune from prosecution. At the high court on Monday, Ali's lawyer Jean-Claude Andre concluded "Congress did not intend the provision to broadly bar all claims arising out of all the tensions of all property by all law enforcement officers."

But Assistant to the Solicitor General Kannon Shanmugam declared the intent behind the congressional action to be silent.

"I do think that we are left with the plain language here," Shanmugam said. That plain language places emphasis on the words "any other law enforcement officer."

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia expressed doubts over the inmate's claim of having a right to sue, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer suggested they are skeptical of the government's position

Justice David Souter took issue with the government's position, calling it ambiguous because the words immediately preceding "any other law enforcement officer" deal with customs officers. Souter suggested the proximity of the words could imply that the key phrase here wasn't as all encompassing as the government would like, but rather limited in its application to customs duties.

About 45 minutes into the otherwise mundane hour-long argument, Souter, who is very fond of asking hypotheticals of lawyers, quizzed Shanmugam on the application of his argument to the recent standoff in Souter's home state of New Hampshire.

For nearly eight months, tax evaders Ed and Elaine Brown had held federal authorities at bay outside their home before U.S. Marshals snuck onto their property and arrested them earlier this month.

Souter wanted to know how the government would classify action by the U.S. Marshals in support of tax laws. Not to be outdone, Breyer offered his own historical example of cross-agency federal agents working together to arrest mobster Al Capone.

He cited it as a contemporary example to the 1946 FTCA law that might offer a clue as to what Congress meant by "any other law enforcement officer." The full court will offer its assessment on that question later this term.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.