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Supreme Court: The Ashcroft immunity

A U.S. citizen argued his detention was a deliberate misuse by former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft of a statute intended to compel witness testimony. But the high court ruled Ashcroft couldn't be liable.

June 10, 2011

Not for the first time, the Supreme Court has refused to hold high government officials responsible for outrageous abuses of human rights. Late last month, the court rejected a lawsuit against former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft by a U.S. citizen who was unfairly imprisoned and mistreated under the pretense of securing his appearance as a witness.

Abdullah Kidd, a convert to Islam who was known as Lavoni Kidd when he played football for the University of Idaho, claimed that Ashcroft had authorized a policy of using the material witness statute — designed to ensure the presence of witnesses at trial — as a way of holding suspected terrorists when there was no probable cause to do so.

Kidd was detained at Dulles International Airport in 2003 as he prepared to fly to Saudi Arabia to study. Supposedly the FBI feared that he wouldn't appear at the trial of an acquaintance suspected of visa fraud and terrorism. But in seeking the material witness warrant, FBI agents falsely said that Kidd had purchased a one-way ticket and omitted the fact that he was a U.S. citizen who had cooperated with the bureau in the past.

Kidd was handcuffed and shackled and held for two weeks before being released on the condition that he live with his wife and in-laws and report to a probation officer. Even then, he was deprived of his passport and subjected to limitations on his travel. The restrictions were lifted in 2004, but he was never called to testify at his acquaintance's trial.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Ashcroft couldn't be held personally liable for Kidd's mistreatment. In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia emphasized that the warrant to arrest Kidd was "objectively reasonable" and had been properly obtained from a magistrate. The warrant couldn't be challenged, he said, "on the basis of allegations that the arresting authority had an improper motive." Scalia also found that Ashcroft didn't disregard clearly established law, another requirement for stripping a public official of immunity.

Providing some consolation for Kidd, four justices noted that the court didn't say the treatment of Kidd was legal, merely that Ashcroft couldn't be sued as an individual. In a separate suit against the United States, Kidd might still be able to claim that FBI agents misrepresented the facts in obtaining the warrant. But a judgment against Ashcroft would have sent the message that senior officials will be held accountable for abuses of power. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her opinion, Kidd's ordeal "is a grim reminder of the need to install safeguards against disrespect for human dignity, constraints that will control officialdom even in perilous times."

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