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Seventh Circuit Reverses FTCA Dismissal; BOP Still Liable for Lost Property

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed an earlier holding that the government is not immune from suit for lost property.

During a February 2000 “shake down,” federal prisoner David Dahler had a pair of shoes and four shirts taken from his cell. He sought return of the property, but no record of it could be found. Dahler filed an administrative tort claim but the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) denied the claim in June 2005. Dahler then brought suit in federal court under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 USC § 1346(b).

The district court found the government immune from suit and dismissed the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court acknowledged that its holding was contrary to Ortloff v. U.S., 335 F.3d 652 (7th Cir. 2003), but concluded that subsequent amendments to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA) excluded claims like Dahler’s from the FTCA waiver of immunity.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the government’s argument “that the CAFRA amendments compel a finding that Congress intended ‘any other law enforcement officer’” in 28 USC § 2680(c),” to be construed broadly to include BOP officials.” Based upon its legislative history, the appellate court concluded “the new language in § 2680(c) does not affect the meaning of the phrase ‘any law enforcement officer.’” Rather, “Congress intended the amendment to apply only to forfeitures – not to every detention – of property.” Similar conclusions have been reached by other circuit courts in Andrews v. U.S., 441 F.3d 220 (4th Cir. 2006); Bramwell v. U.S. BOP, 348 F.3d 804, 806-07 (9th Cir. 2003); and Chapa v. U.S. DOJ, 339 F.3d 388, 389-90 (5th Cir. 2003).

“Having found nothing in the CAFRA amendments to compel otherwise,” the appeals court reaffirmed its holding “that the term ‘any other law enforcement officer’ in § 2680(c) applies only to those officers performing customs or excise related functions. See: Ortloff, 335 F.3d at 658. Section 2680(c) therefore does not divest the district court of jurisdiction over Dahler’s complaint.”

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of Dahler’s lawsuit and remanded for further proceedings. See: Dahler v. United States, 473 F.3d 769 (7th Cir. 2007).

The supreme court subsequently held that the FTCA does not allow prisoners to sue BOP officials for the negligent loss of their property.

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Related legal case

Dahler v. United States