The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously threw out a lawsuit accusing former Attorney General John Ashcroft of misusing his power by jailing a supposed terrorism witness in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In the case Ashcroft v. al Kidd, the highest court in the nation ruled (PDF) 8 to 0 that Ashcroft did not clearly violate the 4th Amendment’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures in the jailing of a U.S. citizen as a potential witness.
“The Court has unfortunately let Attorney General Ashcroft off the hook, but half of the justices who participated in today’s decision expressed real questions about how the government used the material witness statute in al-Kidd’s case,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Our hope is that those questions will lead to a serious examination moving forward of the use of the statute as a tool for preventive detention.”
Abdullah al Kidd, a former University of Idaho football player, was arrested at Dulles Airport as he was boarding a plane to Saudi Arabia. Federal officials had obtained a warrant to arrest al Kidd by telling a judge that information “crucial” to a suspected terrorist’s prosecution would be lost if al Kidd boarded his flight.
He was held for 16 days before being released without ever being called as a witness. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, al Kidd was moved to three separate federal detention facilities in three different states and was sometimes held naked and shackled hand-and-foot.
He later filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ashcroft’s policy to arrest suspects as “material witnesses” in terrorism cases. The federal material witness statute authorizes law enforcement to detain a witness if it believes the witness won’t testify voluntarily.
The Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that held the 4th Amendment prohibited pretextual arrests absent probable cause of criminal wrongdoing and that Ashcroft could not claim immunity from the lawsuit.
“We hold that an objectively reasonable arrest and detention of a material witness pursuant to a validly obtained warrant cannot be challenged as unconstitutional on the basis of allegations that the arresting authority had an improper motive,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. “Because Ashcroft did not violate clearly established law, we need not address the more difficult question whether he enjoys absolute immunity.”