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Law School Case Brief

Ashcroft v. al-Kidd - 563 U.S. 731, 131 S. Ct. 2074 (2011)


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. A case directly on point is not required, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.


Respondent al-Kidd alleged that, after the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11th, 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed federal officials to detain terrorism suspects, which Ashcroft claimed that the federal material-witness statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3144, authorized. Al-Kidd claimed 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 alleged) never meant to do so. Al-Kidd filed suit pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), 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 prohibited pretextual arrests absent probable cause of criminal wrongdoing, and that Ashcroft could not claim qualified or absolute immunity. Ashcroft filed a petition for certiorari review.


Could a detention of a material witness be challenged as unconstitutional on the basis of allegations that the arresting authority had an improper motive?




The United States Supreme Court held that 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. The Court held that the Ninth Circuit was mistaken in its view that "programmatic purpose" was relevant to Fourth Amendment analysis of programs of seizures without probable cause; the existence of a judicial warrant based on individualized suspicion took the case outside the domain of suspicionless intrusions pursuant to a general scheme. Because al-Kidd conceded that individualized suspicion supported the issuance of the material-witness arrest warrant, and he did not assert that his arrest would have been unconstitutional absent the alleged pretextual use of the warrant, there was no Fourth Amendment violation. 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. Thus, the Attorney General deserved qualified immunity even assuming--contrafactually--that his alleged detention policy violated the Fourth Amendment.

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