Time to brush off your federal courts outlines.
A Minnesota woman has resuscitated her effort to sue a police officer who jailed her as a teenager for two years on false charges associated with a sham sex trafficking investigation that the FBI once billed as its largest human trafficking crackdown. The case is another example of the legal labyrinth victims are required to navigate when attempting to get recourse after the government infringes on their rights and once again raises the question: How inoculated should those government officials be from civil suits for violating the Constitution?
Hamdi Mohamud’s odyssey began over a decade ago when St. Paul police officer Heather Weyker had her arrested on witness tampering charges concerning a woman named Muna Abdulkadir, who allegedly attacked Mohamud and her friends at knifepoint. Abdulkadir was crucial to Weyker’s sex-trafficking case, which, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit conceded, was “plagued with problems from the start.” Some of those problems included Weyker lying under oath, coercing witnesses, editing police reports, and making up evidence.
The groundless charges against Mohamud were ultimately dropped, but not until she spent about two years in federal prison, where those accused of federal crimes are typically held pretrial.
When Mohamud sued, Weyker was denied qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it difficult to sue state and local government actors unless their alleged misconduct was “clearly established” in a prior court precedent. Yet the 8th Circuit in 2020 overturned that decision, citing Weyker’s position on a federal task force. Government employees at the federal level receive an even more muscular immunity.
“Qualified immunity makes it very, very difficult to sue government officials,” Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney at the Institute for Justice (I.J.), told me in 2021. “This makes it impossible.” The U.S. Supreme Court further strengthened that protection in June 2022.
But previously unearthed documents on Weyker’s cross-deputization call into question the notion that her activity was exclusively carried out under federal authority. “Weyker’s deputization form listed her employer as the ‘St. Paul Police Department’ and explicitly disclaimed: ‘This appointment does not constitute employment by the United States Marshals Service, the United States Department of Justice, or the United States Government,'” I.J. wrote in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, adding that the form “made clear that her federal authority was narrow.”
In other words, Mohamud’s attorneys have to convince the court that Weyker, in some sense, had a lower level of power than she previously claimed. It’s a perverse concession to make—that elevated authority comes with an even lower standard—but it’s the only one that, in our current system, gives them any shot at success.
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