The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, a case concerning an American citizen detained for more than two weeks in harsh conditions on the specious grounds that he was a material witness.
Abdullah Al-Kidd is an American-born United States citizen and convert to Islam who lives in Idaho. The FBI targeted Al-Kidd and his wife for surveillance and interviews during a broad terrorism investigation in the state following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The investigation revealed no evidence of wrongdoing by Al-Kidd or his wife. However, FBI agents arrested him on a material witness warrant related to an investigation of another person, and took him into custody. Following several interrogations without counsel, Al-Kidd was held for 15 nights in jails in three states with hardened criminals, and transported aboard a “Con Air” flight in which he was held in full shackles. He was never used as a material witness – the pretext under which he was originally arrested.
Al-Kidd sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft for ordering his wrongful detention. He argues that neither the absolute nor qualified immunity sometimes afforded government officials is appropriate in this case because Ashcroft’s use of a material witness warrant was merely a pretext to submit Al-Kidd to preventative detention. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Al-Kidd and Ashcroft appealed the decision.
If the Supreme Court rules in Ashcroft’s favor, it will enable government officials to circumvent fundamental constitutional protections by detaining individuals indefinitely without access to an attorney simply by claiming they are needed as material witnesses.
Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, March 2.