I wrote here about the decision by Minnesota District Judge Ann Montgomery denying the law enforcement defendants qualified immunity in the lawsuit brought by the flying imams. Leaving Minneapolis to return to Phoenix after a convention of imams, members of the group prayed loudly at the gate, cursed the United States and asked for seatbelt extensions that a USAirways flight attendant thought unnecessary. After a passenger passed a note to the pilot, the imams were removed and questioned by law enforcement officers over five to six hours. The imams were released without charges at the conclusion of the questioning.
Judge Montgomery essentially holds that the imams were victims of an arrest that reasonable law enforcement officers should have known was unlawful. The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from monetary claims under circumstances where a reasonable officer would not know his conduct was illegal. Quoting case law, Judge Montgomery states that the relevant question in determining qualified immunity is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. Judge Montgomery holds that no reasonably competent law enforcement officer could have believed that his conduct was legal in the imams’ case.
One of the striking elements of the facts in the case is the number of law enforcement officers who participated in the detention and questioning of the imams. Among the officers Judge Montgomery mentions in the course of her 47-page opinion are six Metropolitan Airports Commission officers (who are all defendants), one Federal Air Marshal, three FBI Special Agents (one is a defendant), at least one Secret Service officer and four other law enforcement officers participated in the detention or questioning of the imams. At the moment when Judge Montgomery deems the imams to have been arrested, Judge Montgomery observes that law enforcement officers outnumbered the imams fifteen to six.
So far as one can determine from Judge Montgomery’s opinion, not a single officer questioned the legality of the imams’ detention and questioning. Given the number of officers involved and the variety of agencies represented, one might almost posit the imams’ detention as giving rise to a case study in the question whether a reasonable law enforcement officer would think the conduct in question was legal. Yet the result of this particular case study arrives at a conclusion regarding what a reasonable officer would think that varies from the result at which Judge Montgomery arrived.
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