WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Tuesday that a Muslim inmate cannot sue the government over the disappearance of the prisoner's copies of the Koran and a prayer rug.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices said the federal law the inmate relied on prohibits lawsuits against federal corrections officers.
Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali says the missing books and rug reflect widespread harassment against Muslim inmates in federal, state and local prisons stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Reports from all over the country have come in" on Muslims' religious property that "has been destroyed, confiscated, looted, lost, stolen or taken without cause," Ali said in the lawsuit he filed in federal court.
Ali is serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison for committing first-degree murder in the District of Columbia.
The issue in the case was whether federal prison guards are immune from suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The law blocks lawsuits against the government over goods detained by customs and excise officers or "any other law enforcement officer." Two lower federal courts said Ali cannot sue because prison officials are law enforcement officers.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a majority that cut across ideological grounds, agreed with the lower courts. The law "forecloses lawsuits against the United States for the unlawful detention of property by 'any,' not just 'some,' law enforcement officers," Thomas said.
Tuesday's ruling was the first 5-4 split of the term, following a term in which the margin in 24 cases was a single vote.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia joined Thomas. The dissenters were Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter and John Paul Stevens.
"The seizure of property by an officer raises serious concerns for the liberty of our people and the act should not be read to permit appropriation of property without a remedy," Kennedy said.
Besides the two copies of the Koran and the prayer rug, Ali is missing stamps and other personal items worth $177 that he says never showed up after his transfer from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta to Big Sandy penitentiary at Inez, Ky., in 2003. He said the last time he saw the now-missing items was when he turned them over to a prison supervisor in Atlanta.
Muslim inmates have been subjected to "very hard times and bad treatment" at the hands of federal, state and local prison employees, Ali said in court papers.
It seems as though "the many prison employees think that they can hurt you best taking your personally owned property," Ali wrote.
He 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.
Ali 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.
The case is Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 06-9130.