A Minneapolis judge ruled today that a law passed in part to scuttle a lawsuit by six Muslim imams detained at the Minneapolis airport doesn't give law enforcement officers immunity from being sued for violating the Constitution.
Congress passed the law in 2007, to retroactively give individuals more protection from being prosecuted for reporting suspicious activities that could lead to acts of terrorism.
The six Islamic leaders sued US Airways, an FBI agent, and Metropolitan Airport Commission police for discrimination after authorities removed them from a flight in 2006.
The Imams had been praying shortly before boarding a flight to Phoenix. Once they were in their seats, a passenger sent a handwritten note to the pilot that there were "6 suspicious Arabic men on plane, spaced out in their seats. All were together, saying ". . . Allah . . . Allah," cursing U.S. involvement w/ Saddam before flight--1 in front exit row, another in first row 1st class, another in 8D, another in 22D, two in 25 E&F."
The imams later repeatedly denied making the comments.
US Airways refused to allow them to fly. Court documents say airport police and FBI agents detained, handcuffed, and pat-searched the imams, confiscated their bags, and transported them by police car in plain view of the flight's passengers. The clerics were later released when officials determined they posed no threat.
In a pretrial motion, lawyers for an FBI agent and airport police argued that a recent law that gave private citizens more immunity for reporting suspicious actions at airports should also cover law enforcement officers.
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled that there was no indication that Congress intended to do that.
"When a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution and cannot raise the specter of 9/11 as an absolute exception to that responsibility...no reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest Plaintiffs without probable cause."
Fred Goetz, the imams' attorney, said the ruling is an important one.
"It's an important ruling for the plaintiffs, of course, because that means we can present the constitutional claims to a jury, which is obviously important to them," he said. "But it's also a case of national importance. Judge Montgomery was the first judge in this country to consider the scope of immunity under this new statute."
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, which represents the FBI agent, said the office declined comment.
Patrick Hogan of the Metropolitan Airports Commission said the MAC is disappointed in the judge's decision.
"We had hoped that the officers as individuals could be removed from the case; they were simply acting on behalf of the Metropolitan Airports Commission and doing their job the best that they could," he said. "We're going to continue to review the rest of the ruling and see what ramifications it might have but there's still a long way to go before this case is over."
The case is scheduled to go to trial August 30, but it's likely the date will be moved back.
A discrimination claim also remains against US Airways for failing to rebook the imams on another flight once the clerics were cleared. A spokeswoman for US Airways said the airline was reviewing the ruling.