Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd

PETITIONER: John Ashcroft
RESPONDENT: Abdullah al-Kidd
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 10-98
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 563 US 731 (2011)
GRANTED: Oct 18, 2010
ARGUED: Mar 02, 2011
DECIDED: May 31, 2011

Lee Gelernt - for the respondent
Neal Kumar Katyal - Acting Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 2003, the FBI arrested Abdullah al-Kidd as he was preparing to travel to Saudi Arabia to study Arabic and Islamic law. He was held for 16 days as a material witness in the terrorism trial of Sami Omar al-Hussayen. Al-Kidd has since argued the government classified him as a material witness because it lacked enough evidence to hold him as a suspect. He filed a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft personally, claiming that he created and authorized a program that allegedly misused the material witness statute to detain suspected terrorists.

The lawsuit did not go to trial and in September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected Ashcroft's bid for absolute immunity, holding that it didn't apply because the government's motive for arresting Al-Kidd allegedly had nothing to do with the al-Hussayen prosecution.


Is the former government official entitled to qualified immunity from the pretext claim based on the conclusions that (a) the Fourth Amendment prohibits an officer from executing a valid material witness warrant with the intent of conducting further investigation or preventively detaining the subject; and (b) this Fourth Amendment rule was clearly established at the time of Al-Kidd's arrest?

Media for Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 2011 in Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 31, 2011 in Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The respondent Abdullah al-Kidd alleges that, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, the petitioner here, authorized federal officials to detain terrorism suspects using the federal material-witness statute.

According to al-Kidd, this pretextual detention policy, holding someone that you suspect of a crime under a statute that enables you to detain material witnesses, led to his material-witness arrest in March of 2003 as he was boarding a plane to Saudi Arabia.

Two days earlier, federal officials had informed a Magistrate Judge that if al-Kidd boarded his flight they believed information "crucial" to the prosecution of Sami Omar al-Hussayen, would be lost.

Prosecutors never called al-Kidd as a witness, and he alleges they never meant -- never meant to do so.

After his release, al-Kidd filed this suit to challenge the constitutionality of Ashcroft's alleged policy.

Ashcroft filed a motion to dismiss -- oh -- and -- and by the way, if you're detained as a material witness just as if you're detained as a suspect, you're entitled to -- to be released from bond and -- and that indeed did occur after a number of days.

But after his release, al-Kidd filed this suit to challenge the constitutionality of his being held at all.

Ashcroft filed a motion to dismiss based on absolute immunity and qualified immunity which the District Court denied.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Fourth Amendment prohibits pretextual arrests absent probable cause of criminal wrongdoing, and that Ashcroft could not claim qualified or absolute immunity.

We granted certiorari.

Qualified immunity shields a government official from money damages unless two things are present.

(1) he violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that right was "clearly established" at the time of the challenged conduct.

We hold in the opinion filed with the clerk this morning that Ashcroft did not violate al-Kidd's Fourth Amendment rights, and that even if he had, the wrongfulness of his conduct would not have been clearly established in 2003.

Whether a detention is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment "is predominantly an objective inquiry."

We ask whether the -- these are quotes from our cases.

We ask whether "the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the challenged action."

This approach recognizes that efficient and evenhanded application of the law demands that we look to whether the arrest is objectively justified, rather than to the motive of the arresting officer.

Two "limited exceptions" to this rule are our special-needs and administrative-search cases, where "actual motivations" do matter.

Apart from those categories in which the present case is plainly not included, we have almost uniformly rejected invitations to probe subjective intent of the arresting officer.

The Court of Appeals nevertheless read one of our vehicle checkpoint cases, case called Edmond, to give purpose a more extensive role in Fourth Amendment analysis.

In its view, Edmond established that "programmatic purpose is relevant to Fourth Amendment analysis of programs of seizures without probable cause."

That was mistaken.

It was not the absence of probable cause that triggered Edmond's invalidating-purpose inquiry, but rather, the checkpoint's failure to be based on individualized suspicion.

Such warrantless, suspicionless intrusions are far removed from the fact here, where a neutral Magistrate Judge issued a warrant authorizing al-Kidd's arrest, and the affidavit accompanying the warrant application gave individualized reasons to believe that he was a material witness who would soon disappear.

A warrant based on individualized suspicion, in fact grants more protection against the malevolent and the incompetent than existed in most of our cases that eschew inquiries into intent.

Even assuming -- contrarfactually -- that Ashcroft's alleged detention policy violated the Fourth Amendment, he deserves qualified immunity anyway.

A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, "the contours of a right are sufficiently clear" that every "reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right."

That's a quote from our cases.

The constitutional question in this case falls far short of that threshold.