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Supreme Court Rules on Terrorist Issue

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded in May 2011, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmation of an Idaho district court’s holding that U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was ineligible for both qualified and absolute immunity in a Fourth Amendment issue arising from a material witness warrant obtained to detain an individual suspected of having terrorist ties as he was boarding a plane for Saudi Arabia.

An American national, Abdullah Al-Kidd, respondent in a writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court, previously brought suit against Ashcroft alleging that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Ashcroft improperly authorized obtaining a material witness warrant in March 2003, for Al-Kidd under the pretext that Al-Kidd’s testimony was material to the trial of terrorist Sami Omar Al-Hussaven. Al-Kidd was never called as a witness. Al-Kidd remained in federal holding sixteen days, then under supervised release for fourteen months.

Ashcroft moved to dismiss under immunity grounds, which the district court denied. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Fourth Amendment prohibits pretextual arrests absent probable cause. See: al-Kidd v. Ashcroft, 580 F.3d 949 (9th Cir. 2009).

The Supreme Court held that detention of a material witness warrant cannot be challenged on constitutionality on the basis of allegations that the responsible party had an improper motive as long as the official violated s not clearly established constitutional right, and that the reasonableness of a detention is an objective inquiry, as opposed to subjective, as allegations of pretext are. The Court held also that since Ashcroft did not violate clearly established law, he was entitled to qualified immunity, and that the absolute immunity question did not merit pursuit.

The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded. See: Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. 2074 (2011).

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Related legal case

Ashcroft v. al-Kidd