A federal judge on July 24 issued a ruling in the ongoing lawsuit filed by six imams who claim they were falsely arrested on a U.S. Airways jet docked at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2006. Perhaps most significantly, the judge ruled that the law enforcement officials involved are not immune to litigation under a law designed to protect concerned citizens from retributive lawsuits when they report suspicious activity to authorities. (Text of decision here.)
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled that the complaint set forth a cause of action. The complaint alleges that one FBI Special Agent and six Metropolitan Airports Commission police officers lacked probable cause in arresting the six imams, who proved to pose no threat to the plane from which they’d been removed, or its passengers. In her opinion, Montgomery wrote that “when a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution and cannot raise the specter of 9/11 as an absolute exception to that responsibility… no reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest Plaintiffs without probable cause.”
The case is unusual in that it has called on those involved to interpret a law passed partially in response to the lawsuit itself. Two weeks after the plaintiffs filed their original complaint with the court, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) introduced legislation intended to protect civilians reporting activity that posed an apparent threat to transportation systems. In introducing the bill, King made specific reference to the imams’ lawsuit, stating that “what is absolutely disgraceful is to find out that lawyers are coming forward and advocacy groups are coming forward to represent those imams and suing, attempting to find the identity of those passengers, those citizens who acted in good faith, who responded to their government and reported what they deemed to be suspicious activity… [T]hat is absolutely disgraceful.” The bill and its Senate equivalent passed to become Title 6, Section 1104, of the United States Code.
Montgomery ruled that while the law extended significant protection to civilians, it did not modify existing standards for police behavior, which allow for qualified immunity but also require officers to take responsibility for their own understanding of the law.
Fred Goetz, the imams’ attorney, told Minnesota Public Radio that Montgomery’s decision is “an important ruling for the plaintiffs” because it will allow them to present their case before a jury. According to MPR, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission expressed disappointment in the decision, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, which represents the FBI agent, declined to comment.
The case is now scheduled to go to trial August 30, but that date is likely to be moved back.
Ted Trautman (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer. He recently completed his two-year service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, where he taught English as a foreign language. He will head to New York this fall to hone his journalistic chops as an editorial intern at Harper’s Magazine, but could never leave Minnesota behind forever.
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