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Monday, February 28, 2011

An Al-Kidd Reality Check: The Myth of Non-Statutory "National Security" Detention

In cross-posts at Volokh and SCOTUSblog, Orin Kerr takes issue with the government’s litigation strategy in Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, the material witness/Fourth Amendment/qualified immunity appeal in which the Supreme Court is set to hear argument on Wednesday. Orin’s argument is worth reading in full, but I will focus on his principal point -- that, when it comes to the substantive Fourth Amendment question in the case, "DOJ is making an argument with one arm tied behind its back.” I don’t think that’s right. Instead, as I explain below the fold, DOJ does not, in fact, have available the alternative “national security detention” argument that Orin believes it is avoiding.

As Orin notes, DOJ's merits-based argument is argument is that because it has available a criminal law enforcement justification for detaining someone under the material witness statute, it does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the government’s “real” reason for the detention is instead a national security objective, such as interrogating the detainee to discover if he has information about possible future national security threats.

What Orin finds curious is that DOJ is not arguing that the national security justification is itself an independent ground for the detention. As Orin puts it, “DOJ never makes the argument that its use of the material witness statute for national security reasons is permitted by its national security detention powers. . . . DOJ is arguing that the Court shouldn’t even look at its non-law-enforcement purpose and therefore shouldn’t get into its national security powers. . . ." This choice puzzles Orin. He writes that “[i]t’s not clear to me why DOJ has limited its argument in this way. But . . . [t]he Justices presumably will want to know . . . what DOJ thinks its national security powers are.” What this overlooks is that the government is probably forgoing such an argument because it does not have any such “national security” power to detain a U.S. citizen for over two weeks (as happened to al-Kidd).  Indeed, I think it's fairly clear that neither the Constitution nor any federal statute affords the government such authority, at least in this case.

For starters, federal law specifically forbids it. The so-called Non-Detention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 4001(a), provides that “[n]o citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress.” In Hamdi, the government argued that this prohibition does not apply to military detention. The Court did not specifically rule on that question, but as I wrote way back when, its earlier decision in Howe v. Smith had held that “[t]his argument . . . fails to give adequate weight to the plain language of § 4001(a) proscribing detention of any kind by the United States, absent a congressional grant of authority to detain.”

To be sure, as Hamdi itself suggests, the Non-Detention Act is merely a baseline restriction: It does not prevent Congress from authorizing “national security detention.” (Indeed, the Hamdi Court went on to hold that Hamdi’s detention was authorized by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.) The material witness statute might well provide such authority in some cases – the government’s argument is that it did so in the al-Kidd case. Orin’s puzzlement, however, is why DOJ is not also citing a stand-alone “national security” basis for al-Kidd's detention, rather than falling back on the material witness statute.

The reason for DOJ's reticence on that score is that Congress has not afforded the Executive such an authority. Section 412 of the USA PATRIOT Act does authorize the detention of non-citizens suspected of terrorism-related activities for up to seven days, before the detainee must either be (1) charged with a crime; (2) placed in removal proceedings; or (3) released. But that authority would not help in al-Kidd, both because he is a citizen and because his detention more than doubled the seven-day statutory limit. Moreover, as Orin himself notes, DOJ urged Congress during the debate over the PATRIOT Act to enact a broader statute authorizing national security detentions that might cover the case here, but that “proposal proved controversial and was never passed.”

It might be argued instead that the AUMF authorizes the very “national security detention” Orin contemplates. It is very much an open question whether the AUMF does (and constitutionally could) authorize the detention of individuals, especially U.S. persons, who are apprehended within the United States and alleged to be enemy forces, among the persons covered by the terms of the AUMF. That was the question raised in both the Padilla (U.S. citizen) and al-Marri (lawfully resident non-citizen) cases, which the Supreme Court did not resolve because the government returned the two detainees to criminal custody. But whatever the government's national security detention authority might be as to members of enemy forces captured inside the United States, the AUMF cannot be of assistance here; the government is not alleging that al-Kidd is part of enemy forces, or otherwise covered in any way by the terms of the AUMF.

Nor am I aware of any extant statutory authority for long-term “national security detention” beyond what the material witness statute, the USA PATRIOT Act (for non-citizens), and the AUMF provide. Together with the prohibition of the Non-Detention Act, this absence of statutory authority explains why the government’s sole argument for its authority to detain al-Kidd is based on the material witness statute. To be fair, If I’m reading his posts correctly, Orin appears to think that the Fourth Amendment itself might provide the government with the authority that the U.S. Code does not for a long-term “national security” detention of a U.S. citizen. But I had always understood the Fourth Amendment as only limiting the government’s power to seize persons – not as creating such powers.

In short, then, it seems to me that the Justice Department isn’t forgoing any important arguments here. Leaving aside whether or not former Attorney General Ashcroft is entitled to qualified immunity, the underlying merits issue is whether the material witness statute authorized al-Kidd’s detention -- and, if it did, whether that detention nevertheless violated the Fourth Amendment if the government’s motives were pretextual in the way al-Kidd alleges (allegations that must be taken as true at this stage of the litigation). It's still an important and tricky case to be sure, but I just don't see Orin's dog that didn't bark...

Update: Orin's posted a thoughtful reply, for which I'm quite thankful. I agree with Orin that Virginia v. Moore appears to stand for the (in my view, not entirely obvious) proposition that the mere fact that a seizure is ultra vires is not conclusive of its reasonableness for Fourth Amendment purposes. At the risk of drawing out this exchange longer than is merited, Orin's response provokes two additional thoughts on my end:

First, crystallizing the argument as Orin has only reinforces to me the reasons why DOJ didn't make it part of their argument on the merits before the Supreme Court. After all, to make the argument that al-Kidd's seizure was reasonable on national security grounds, DOJ would have to concede that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the material witness statute, since it's hardly an alternative theory that fits the same facts. So framed, the government would be litigating the case on even weaker terrain--conceding a statutory violation and resting everything on Moore, where the issue was the legality of the initial arrest, rather than the subsequent detention.

Second, and related, I can't imagine the Justices will see the issue here as settled by Moore. It's one thing to argue that certain seizures are consistent with the Fourth Amendment regardless of whether they're authorized by statute, but that's in the short term (as in Moore). It's another thing entirely to think that the Fourth Amendment would also tolerate continuing detention beyond the initial seizure in the face of contrary statutory authority -- especially where, as here, a federal statute specifically forbids precisely that category of detention (i.e., detention without statutory authority). Of course, one response is that it's difficult to draw the line between what the Fourth Amendment might tolerate initially and what it won't abide in the long term, but isn't that the entire point of the 48-hour rule articulated by the Court in County of Riverside? I'm not the criminal procedure expert that Orin is, but it strikes me that Moore would be irreconcilable with County of Riverside if it stood for the proposition that the Fourth Amendment tolerates detention past 48 hours in the absence of other, statutory authority. 

Given that, although I appreciate what Orin's arguing, I still can't see how the wiser course for DOJ would have been to argue for "national security" detention.

Posted by Steve Vladeck on February 28, 2011 at 01:42 AM in Blogging, Constitutional thoughts, Criminal Law, Current Affairs, Steve Vladeck | Permalink


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I've understood County of Riverside as just creating a rule for applying Gerstein v Pugh, which itself talks about the difference between ex ante and ex post judicial review and seems (at least as I've read it before) to be limited to the latter.

Also, the relevance of Congressional judgement to reasonableness came up recently in City of Ontario v. Quon, where the government obtained the Respondent's text messages in violation of the federal communications privacy law known as the Stored Communications Act. The Respondent argued that the statute defined reasonableness -- after all, it was Congress's judgment on the question. The Court did not answer the question clearly, but it disagreed. See the slip op starting at the bottom of p15:

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 28, 2011 12:19:15 AM

Orin -- Thanks to you, as well. I'd always understood County of Riverside (perhaps wrongly) as standing for the proposition that the government needed underlying authority for detention subsequent to arrest, at least beginning at 48:01. Perhaps the government produced that authority ab initio, but if so, doesn't that authority need to be more than just the Fourth Amendment? That is to say, to whatever extent the Fourth Amendment might abide a short-term detention even without (or in the face of) statutory authority, doesn't Riverside call into question the continuing reasonableness of that detention without underlying authority at that point?

In any event, it strikes me that the Non-Detention Act does more work on the reasonableness prong than any state law under Moore ever could. Congress has spoken specifically to the question of detention without statutory authority, and categorically prohibited it. Thus, whether or not there are circumstances under Moore where unauthorized detention could be reasonable for more than just the shortest period, it strikes me that the Non-Detention Act occupies the field here.

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Feb 27, 2011 11:55:11 PM


Thanks for the added discussion (referring here to your update). How is County of Riverside relevant, though? County of Riverside says that you ordinarily need judicial review of a warrantless detention within 48 hours. But if the feds have a warrant, they have judicial reveiw ex ante, right?

Oh, and just to be clear, I'm not saying that Moore settles the notion that statutes are irrelevant to reasonableness. It's actually a tremendously complicated question. But the general rule is that statutes are irrelevant, and it's not clear to me why that wouldn't be the case here.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 27, 2011 11:25:20 PM

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