A teenage girl who was a key witness in the case allegedly tried to attack Mohamud and her friends with a knife. While the alleged victims called 911, the alleged attacker hid in a neighbor's apartment and phoned St. Paul officer Heather Weyker, who was conducting the sex-trafficking investigation.
Weyker intervened, telling the Minneapolis officer who responded to the 911 call that Mohamud and her friends had sought to “intimidate” her witness. But, according to Mohamud's legal team, “Weyker was lying.”
Weyker's witness wasn’t arrested. Mohamud and her friends were arrested on suspicion of federal witness tampering, and all three were indicted. While her friends were detained and later acquitted, Mohamud spent nearly 25 months in federal custody, more than a year of it in a federal prison far from her home, before the charges were dismissed.
“My life was never the same since the time I got arrested,” Mohamud told her Institute for Justice lawyers. “They took my life away.”
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Meanwhile, by 2016, Weyker’s sex-trafficking case had fallen apart. A federal trial judge in Tennessee, who presided over that case, said Weyker "likely exaggerated or fabricated important aspects of this story." The district court also "caught Weyker lying to the grand jury" and during a detention hearing.
When those comments emerged in a federal appellate ruling in March 2016, St. Paul Police put Weyker on administrative leave and opened an internal investigation, which, according to a police spokesman, remains open today. But Weyker still works for the department – she's now a sergeant – and she was paid $107,060 in 2019.
And the sex-trafficking case? Thirty people were indicted but none was convicted.
Federal cops enjoy especially broad shield
Mohamud was just 16 years old when she was wrongfully arrested. She has been trying since 2017 to hold Weyker accountable for what she went through.
But when Mohamud, a Somali refugee whose life was torn apart by the experience, filed a lawsuit against Weyker, who had accused her of witness tampering, a federal appeals court let Weyker off the hook. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Weyker what amounts to absolute immunity, ruling that as an officer detailed to a federal task force at the time of Mohamud's arrest, she is entitled to broad protection and cannot be sued. The decision on whether a legal remedy exists in cases like this one “lies with Congress, not us,” the majority ruled in a 2-to-1 decision, imperiously passing the buck.
Mohamud’s lawyers have appealed to the Supreme Court and are waiting to see whether the high court will take the case.
A USA TODAY Opinion series: Faces, victims, issues and debates surrounding qualified immunity
Unless the Supreme Court reverses the 8th Circuit’s ruling or does so in a similar case from the 5th Circuit, people living in the 10 states covered by those two circuits will have no civil remedy when federal agents trample their rights.
These cases cry out for Supreme Court action to make clear that a federal badge no longer gives police free rein to violate people’s constitutional rights.
Lying doesn't exactly mirror the facts in a key case
In her struggle to hold Weyker accountable, Mohamud has run into the same obstacles that have made it almost impossible for many others to bring lawsuits against police when their rights are trampled.
A doctrine known as “qualified immunity” shields local, state and federal police from accountability. Federal cops enjoy an even broader immunity, based on recent Supreme Court rulings that have eaten away at a 1971 Supreme Court decision that allowed some lawsuits. Some appellate circuits have found ways to let cases move forward. But in bizarre holdings by the 5th and 8th Circuits, unless an incident exactly mirrors the 1971 case of Webster Bivens – who was handcuffed, arrested and later strip-searched by federal agents after a warrantless search of his home – people whose rights are violated by a federal officer have no remedy in civil court.
It’s long past time for a change.
In her defense against Mohamud’s lawsuit, Weyker asserted that Mohamud has “no factual support” for claiming “Weyker’s sworn statements were false,” and that “probable cause existed” to arrest her and two friends “independent of any information provided by” Weyker.
Finally, because her actions did not mirror the claims in the Bivens case, Weyker argued that she, as a member of a federal task force, cannot be sued. The 8th Circuit bought the officer's argument, noting that “lying and manipulation, however bad they might be, are simply not the same as the physical invasions that were at the heart of Bivens.”
High court must resolve this split
In other parts of the country, federal appeals courts disagree with this absurdly narrow view of when federal police can be held accountable. This split among the courts means that Americans’ rights now depend on where they happen to live.
That’s another reason the Supreme Court should take Mohamud’s case and make it clear that when police overreach – whether with excessive force or false statements that put an innocent person in jail – a federal badge cannot shield them from accountability.
Congress has given this critical problem little attention, so it’s up to the Supreme Court to ensure that Americans have a way to defend their constitutional rights.
This editorial is part of a series by the USA TODAY Opinion team examining the issue of qualified immunity. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together. The opinions offered are those of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Stand Together does not provide editorial input.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court must take immunity away from untrustworthy cops