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Supreme Court to Hear Material Witness Detention Case

The Supreme Court decided on Monday to hear a case on whether former Attorney General John Ashcroft may be held personally liable for the questionable detention and interrogation of an American citizen.  The case will involve important questions such as the aggressive use of the “material witness statute” as well as on the limits of qualified immunity for government officials.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that, in 2003, American citizen Abdullah Al-Kidd was arrested by FBI agents as he was leaving the country for Saudi Arabia.  Held and interrogated in a high-security jail cell for 16 days, and placed under severe restrictions for 15 months following his release, the ordeal took a grave toll on Mr. Al-Kidd’s life.  He was never called to testify, and was never charged with a crime.  Al-Kidd later sued Ashcroft and others, claiming violations of his Fourth Amendment Constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and his Fifth Amendment right to Due Process.  The case was dismissed in district court, but the Ninth Circuit has allowed the suit to move forward.

Ashcroft is challenging the lawsuit on grounds of immunity.  Mr. Ashcroft’s attorneys argue that even if Mr. Al-Kidd’s Constitutional rights were violated, a former attorney general is protected by qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity, the Court has decided, will shield a public official from liability “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or Constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 US 800, 818 (1982).  Mr. Ashcroft’s defense argues that such Constitutional rights were not well established at the time, and that even under this objective reasonableness standard he cannot be held liable.

But Al-Kidd’s attorneys argue that Ashcroft’s use of the “material witness” statute represents a gross abuse of his discretion.  The material witness statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3144, allows for the temporary detention of material witnesses whose appearance may not be secured by subpoena and whose testimony may not be secured by deposition.  The statute has been expansively interpreted and used following the attacks of September 11, 2001, to detain not just witnesses but terrorist suspects.  Criticized by many as a flagrant evasion of well-grounded Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and that the coercive interrogation methods were being used on these witnesses without the benefit of their Miranda rights.  Ashcroft officially announced the use of the material witness statute for “aggressive detention of lawbreakers” in an October 31, 2001 press briefing.

Related filings may be found by searching Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, 2010 WL 2812283.

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