The U.S. Supreme Court has in effect expanded the range of federal officers who are immune from lawsuits for mishandling, losing or even stealing personal property when it comes under their control in the course of their official duties. Although the court's interpretation of the law in question was somewhat defensible, it could have and should have gone the other way. Now fixing the situation might require a change in the law.

Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali was in federal prison and was being transferred from one facility to another. He left two duffel bags of personal property to be shipped. When he received the bags, various religious articles, including two copies of the Quran, were missing. Valuing the missing items at $177, he filed suit.

The situation was complicated by the fact that there is a Federal Tort Claims Act, written in 1946, whose main thrust is to waive immunity for federal employees against lawsuits. However, the legislation included some exceptions, including "any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer" being immune from a suit involving "any claim arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or custom duty or the detention of any goods, merchandise or other property."

Does that clause mean only officers involved in collecting taxes or duties who incorrectly detain merchandise or property are immune from lawsuits, or does the phrase "any other law enforcement officer" broaden the exemption? Lower courts had divided on the issue, but the Supreme Court opted for the latter approach. So any law enforcement officer doing pretty much anything in line with his duties is immune from lawsuits. Thus the prison personnel who either screwed up or purposely stole those religious items cannot be sued.

We think that's an incorrect interpretation - that the "other law enforcement officers" was meant to refer to other officers who might be doing customs enforcement. The concept of the rule of law, to which everybody in government claims to be devoted, is that the law applies equally to all, to those in government as well as to ordinary citizens. So if a federal agent steals or misplaces your stuff, whatever the reason, he or she ought to be held accountable. Expanding the number of officials who are immunized from this kind of accountability is a clear incentive for them to act in ways that can be arbitrary and capricious.

Since the high court has interpreted the old law so broadly, however, it is up to Congress to act so as to limit the number of officials who are immune from lawsuits for their misconduct, in the clearest possible language. The presumption in difficult cases should be in favor of accountability for government employees.