Man Wrongly Accused of Terrorism May Not Sue the U.S. Government

By Teresa Anderson, Senior Editor

A federal appeals court has ruled that a U.S. citizen who was wrongly accused and held for two weeks under suspicion of terrorism may not pursue his lawsuit against the government.

On March 11, 2004, terrorists detonated two bombs aboard commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, killing 191 people and injuring 1,600 more. Spanish police found fingerprints on evidence discovered nearby and submitted the prints to Interpol. That agency forwarded the fingerprints to the FBI, which compared the prints to those in its database.

The FBI computer search yielded 20 possible results. The fingerprints of each of the candidates had some features in common with those recovered by the Spanish police. The FBI then performed background checks on each person.
One of these candidates was Brandon Mayfield. A U.S. citizen born in Oregon, Mayfield lived with his wife and three children in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. He was a former Army officer and an attorney. Mayfield is also a practicing Muslim and was active in the local Muslim community.

On March 17, 2004, an FBI agent identified the unknown fingerprint as belonging to Mayfield. An FBI contractor and another FBI agent later confirmed this finding. The FBI issued a formal report attesting to the match and ordered surveillance on Mayfield and his family. The FBI also ordered wiretaps of Mayfield’s home and office under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

In April 2004, the FBI sent Mayfield’s fingerprints to the Spanish government. Experts in Spain examined the prints and determined that there were too many discrepancies for the two sets of fingerprints to be a match. Spanish police refused to consider Mayfield a suspect.

Proceeding with their case, the FBI submitted a material witness affidavit to the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The FBI claimed that they had a “100 percent positive identification” of Mayfield as the terrorist. The court appointed an independent analyst to examine the fingerprints. The analyst confirmed that the unknown prints belonged to Mayfield. The FBI did not enter the Spanish government’s opinion into the record. The court named Mayfield as a material witness.

The court issued several search warrants of Mayfield’s house and office. Police seized his computer and paper files. On May 6, 2004, Mayfield was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. His family was not informed about his whereabouts, but they were told that his fingerprints matched those of a Madrid train bomber and that his crime was punishable by death. The FBI released information to the press that Mayfield was linked to the bombings.

On May 20, 2004, Spanish police matched the fingerprint with its owner, Ouhane Daoud. Mayfield was released from prison the next day. In October he filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for, among other things, unlawful arrest and imprisonment and violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unlawful search and seizure. The Fourth Amendment claim was based on the government’s surveillance of Mayfield that the government conducted under FISA.

Mayfield reached a settlement with the government in November 2004. The government agreed to pay compensatory damages of $2 million and destroy all documents related to the electronic surveillance of Mayfield and his family, return all of his property, and apologize. In return, Mayfield agreed to drop all litigation except for the Fourth Amendment violation.

However, in a decision handed down last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, despite the details of the settlement, Mayfield no longer has standing to sue. According to the court, since the government already promised to destroy all surveillance materials and compensated Mayfield monetarily, he has nothing left to sue over.

(Mayfield v. USA, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 07-35865, 2009)

♦ Photo of memorial for Madrid bombing victims by mockstar/Flickr


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