Judge clears way for lawsuit by 6 imams arrested at Minneapolis airport

In a strongly worded ruling, a federal judge on Friday cleared the way for a lawsuit by six Muslim men who claim they were falsely arrested on a US Airways jet in Minneapolis three years ago to move forward.

“The right not to be arrested in the absence of probable cause is clearly established and, based on the allegations … no reasonable officer could have believed that the arrest of the Plaintiffs was proper,” U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled Friday.

The case of “the flying imams” has sparked ongoing debate about the power of law enforcement to override personal rights in the name of security.

The imams were arrested in November 2006 as they were returning home from the North American Conference of Imams. A passenger had passed a note to a flight attendant noting what he considered suspicious activity.

FBI Special Agent Michael Cannizzaro and airport police officers had argued that the arrest and removal of the imams was valid because there were reasons to be suspicious of a crime. They argued that a law passed by Congress to protect people who report suspicious activity from being sued also extends to them.

But Montgomery’s opinion and order stated that they were bound by longstanding rules requiring probable cause before arresting someone.

Being of Middle Eastern descent, praying aloud before their flight and asking for seat belt extenders did not constitute reasonable suspicion to arrest the Muslim spiritual leaders, Montgomery ruled. The officers are not immune to being held accountable for their actions, she said. She did dismiss a false arrest claim against Cannizzaro.

The judge’s ruling also dismissed some of the claims against US Airways, saying it did not act in concert with law enforcement in deplaning or detaining the men.

Frederick Goetz, an attorney representing the imams, said Montgomery’s ruling is significant – especially on the question of law enforcement officers’ ability to arrest people in the post-911 world. “You don’t check your constitutional rights when you get onto an airplane,” Goetz said Friday.

The lawsuit said the police boarded the jet and asked the imams to get off. They were ordered to get their carry-on baggage and were taken to the airport police precinct. Federal agents interviewed them, cleared them of wrongdoing and said they could leave. US Airways refused to book new flights and they departed on Northwest.

Ahmed Shqeirat, Didmar Faja, Omar Shahin, Mahmoud Sulaiman and Marwan Sadeddin live in Arizona. Mohamed Ibrahim lives in California.

The imams have argued that they were removed from the plane because of religious and ethnic bias. Montgomery’s ruling allows those claims to move toward. An August trial date is scheduled.

Faja, Sadeddin and Shqeirat said they saw an older couple watching the other imams as they prayed. They said the man placed a phone call.

Sulaiman helped Sadeddin, who is blind, board the plane and escorted him to his seat in row 4 before going to his own seat in row 9. Another passenger switched seats with Sadeddin so Sulaiman could assist his friend. Shahin was seated in first class. The others were seated in rows 25 and 21.

Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said officials there are disappointed with Montgomery’s denial of their motion to dismiss. “But there is still a long way to go, and we believe we have a good case,” he said.

When asked what MAC officials take from the wording of Montgomery’s ruling, which appears to strongly back the imams, he said: “We are trying to evaluate what our options are going forward, and whether to appeal [her ruling].”

Star Tribune, 25 July 2009

See also “CAIR hails ‘major victory’ in six imams civil rights case”, CAIR press release, 24 July 2009