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John Ashcroft Lawsuit Rejected: Not Liable for Muslim Detentions

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on June 03, 2011 9:45 AM

In a ruling that skirts the bigger issues, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, dismissing a lawsuit that sought damages on behalf of Abdullah al-Kidd, who alleges that he was improperly held for 16 days on a material witness warrant.

Though the decision on the Ashcroft lawsuit leaves open important legal questions about the use of the federal material witness statute, it indicates that judges should more closely scrutinize government evidence before issuing a warrant.

The federal material witness statute allows judges to order the arrest of a person if their testimony is material in a criminal proceeding and it would be difficult to secure their presence by subpoena.

Abdullah al-Kidd was picked up in March 2003 on a material witness warrant and then subsequently held for 16 days in high-security cells where he was shackled and strip searched.

He was never called as a witness.

Once released, he sued Ashcroft, arguing that using the statute to indefinitely detain a witness with no intention of extracting his testimony is unconstitutional.

The court narrowly ruled in Ashcroft's favor, finding that there is no constitutional right to challenge material witness warrants on the basis of improper motive.

However, as several Justices pointed out, this narrow ruling means that the court has yet to consider the real issue: whether using the material witness statute to secure detention is legal.

Though unfortunate for Abdullah al-Kidd, the John Ashcroft lawsuit's fate isn't an altogether loss for everyone else. As SCOTUSblog points out, in three separate opinions, Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg and Sotomayor urged magistrate judges to be "vigilant" and to more closely examine requests for material witness warrants.

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