563 U.S. 731 (2011), 10-98, Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd

Docket Nº:10-98
Citation:563 U.S. 731, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149, 79 U.S.L.W. 4393, 22 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 1057
Opinion Judge:SCALIA, Justice.
Party Name:JOHN D. ASHCROFT, PETITIONER v. ABDULLAH AL-KIDD
Attorney:Neal Kumar Katyal, Acting Solicitor General, Washington, DC, for petitioner. Lee Gelernt, New York, NY, for respondent.
Judge Panel:SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined as to Part I, post, p. 744. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgmen...
Case Date:May 31, 2011
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page ___

___ U.S. ___ (2011)

131 S.Ct. 2074

JOHN D. ASHCROFT, PETITIONER

v.

ABDULLAH AL-KIDD

No. 10-98

United States Supreme Court

May 31, 2011

Argued March 2, 2011

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

[131 S.Ct. 2077] Syllabus [*]

Respondent al-Kidd alleges that, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General Ashcroft authorized federal officials to detain terrorism suspects using the federal material-witness statute, 18 U.S.C. §3144. He claims that this pretextual detention policy led to his material-witness arrest as he was boarding a plane to Saudi Arabia. To secure the warrant, federal officials had told a Magistrate Judge that information "crucial" to Sami Omar al-Hussayen's prosecution would be lost if al-Kidd boarded his flight. Prosecutors never called al-Kidd as a witness, and (as he alleges) never meant to do so. Al-Kidd filed suit pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619, challenging the constitutionality of Ashcroft's alleged policy. The District Court denied Ashcroft's motion to dismiss on absolute and qualified immunity grounds. 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.

Held:

1. The 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. Pp. 2080 - 2084.

(a) Qualified immunity shields a government official from money damages unless (1) the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that right was "clearly established" at the time of the challenged conduct. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396. Where, as here, a court considers both prongs of this inquiry, this Court has the discretion to correct the lower court's errors at each step. P. 2080.

(b) Whether a detention is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment "is predominantly an objective inquiry." Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 47, 121 S.Ct. 447, 148 L.Ed.2d 333. Courts ask whether "the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify [the challenged] action." Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128, 138, 98 S.Ct. 1717, 56 L.Ed.2d 168. Except for cases that involve special-needs, e.g., Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 653, 115 S.Ct. 2386, 132 L.Ed.2d 564, or administrative searches, e.g., Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287, 294, 104 S.Ct. 641, 78 L.Ed.2d 477, this Court has almost uniformly rejected invitations to probe subjective intent. The Court of Appeals was [131 S.Ct. 2078] mistaken in believing that Edmond established that " 'programmatic purpose' is relevant to Fourth Amendment analysis of programs of seizures without probable cause." 580 F.3d 949, 968. It was not the absence of probable cause that triggered Edmond's invalidating-purpose inquiry, but the checkpoints' failure to be based on "individualized suspicion." 531 U.S., at 47, 121 S.Ct. 447. Here 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 grants more protection than existed in most of this Court's cases eschewing inquiries into intent, e.g., Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89, and Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21-22, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889. Al-Kidd's contrary, narrow reading of those cases is rejected. Because he concedes that individualized suspicion supported the issuance of the material-witness arrest warrant; and does not assert that his arrest would have been unconstitutional absent the alleged pretext; there is no Fourth Amendment violation here. Pp. 2080 - 2084.

2. Ashcroft did not violate clearly established law and thus is entitled to qualified immunity. A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, "[t]he contours of [a] right [are] sufficiently clear" that every "reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523. Here, the asserted constitutional right falls far short of that threshold. At the time of al-Kidd's arrest, not a single judicial opinion had held that pretext could render an objectively reasonable arrest pursuant to a material-witness warrant unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit's reliance on a District Court's footnoted dictum, irrelevant cases from this Court, and the Fourth Amendment's broad purposes and history is rejected. Because Ashcroft did not violate clearly established law, the question whether he enjoys absolute immunity need not be addressed. Pp. 2083 - 2085.

580 F.3d 949, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined as to Part I. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Neal Kumar Katyal, Acting Solicitor General, Washington, DC, for petitioner.

Lee Gelernt, New York, NY, for respondent.

Scalia, Justice Kagan recused.

Neal Kumar Katyal, Acting Solicitor General, Counsel of Record Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Michael J. Wishnie, New Haven, CT, Cynthia J. Woolley, The Law Offices of Cynthia J. Woolley, PLLC, Ketchum, ID, Patrick C. Toomey, Lankier Siffert & Wohl LLP, New York, NY, R. Keith Roark, The Roark Law Firm, LLP, Hailey, ID, Lee Gelernt, Counsel of Record, Steven R. Shapiro, Lucas Guttentag, Tanaz Moghadam, Michael K.T. Tan, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, New York, NY, Katherine Desormeau, American [131 S.Ct. 2079] Civil Liberties Union Foundation, San Francisco, CA, Lea Cooper, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Idaho, Boise, ID, for Respondent.

Neal Kumar Katyal, Acting Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Tony West, Assistant Attorney General, Leondra R. Kruger, Acting Deputy Solicitor General, Eric D. Miller, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Robert M. Loeb, Matthew M. Collette, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

OPINION

SCALIA, Justice.

We decide whether a former Attorney General enjoys immunity from suit for allegedly authorizing federal prosecutors to obtain valid material-witness warrants for detention of terrorism suspects whom they would otherwise lack probable cause to arrest.

I

The federal material-witness statute authorizes judges to "order the arrest of [a] person" whose testimony "is material in a criminal proceeding . . . if it is shown that it may become impracticable to secure the presence of the person by subpoena." 18 U.S.C. §3144. Material witnesses enjoy the same constitutional right to pretrial release as other federal detainees, and federal law requires release if their testimony "can adequately be secured by deposition, and if further detention is not necessary to prevent a failure of justice." Ibid.

Because this case arises from a motion to dismiss, we accept as true the factual allegations in Abdullah al-Kidd's complaint. The complaint alleges that, in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials to use the material-witness statute to detain individuals with suspected ties to terrorist organizations. It is alleged that federal officials had no intention of calling most of these individuals as witnesses, and that they were detained, at Ashcroft's direction, because federal officials suspected them of supporting terrorism but lacked sufficient evidence to charge them with a crime.

It is alleged that this pretextual detention policy led to the material-witness arrest of al-Kidd, a native-born United States citizen. FBI agents apprehended him in March 2003 as he checked in for a flight 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. App. 64. Al-Kidd remained in federal custody for 16 days and on supervised release until al-Hussayen's trial concluded 14 months later. Prosecutors never called him as a witness.

In March 2005, al-Kidd filed this Bivens action, see Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971) to challenge the constitutionality of Ashcroft's alleged policy; he also asserted several other claims not relevant here against Ashcroft and others. Ashcroft filed a motion to dismiss based on absolute and qualified immunity, which the District Court denied. A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for 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. See 580 F.3d 949 (2009).

[131 S.Ct. 2080] Judge Bea dissented, 580 F.3d, at 981, and eight judges dissented from the denial of rehearing en banc, see 598 F.3d 1129...

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