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-9/11 world.