Friday, December 01, 2006

The cost of civil rights wronged

We often say it is hard to put a price on freedom and other civil rights, but that is only until we talk to economists and lawyers. Two cases, the Mayfield case and the Solon case, in point:

The Mayfield case:

FBI pays $2 million to US Muslim in terror-suspect case

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has agreed to pay Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield $2 million as part of a settlement for wrongfully arresting him in connection with the 2004 Madrid terror attacks.

The New York Times reports that the FBI also apologized for its actions and agreed to destroy all materials collected during its electronic surveillance of Mr. Mayfield and secret searches of his home and office. Mayfield is also allowed to continue his lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. He charges that the antiterrorism law violates the Fourth Amendment because is allows for government searches without first establishing "probable cause" of a crime.

Mayfield, an American-born convert to Islam, was put under government surveillance after the FBI mistakenly linked him to the March bombings. He was arrested in May 2004 and held for two weeks as a terrorist suspect, despite evidence from the Spanish government that he was not connected to the attack.

"The horrific pain, torture and humiliation that this has caused myself and my family is hard to put into words," said Mr. Mayfield, an American-born convert to Islam and a former lieutenant in the Army.

"The days, weeks and months following my arrest," he said, "were some of the darkest we have had to endure. I personally was subject to lockdown, strip searches, sleep deprivation, unsanitary living conditions, shackles and chains, threats, physical pain and humiliation."

The Washington Post reports that the apology was "unusual" for the FBI, and that the payment (more than twice what the government paid to Wen Ho Lee, a US nuclear scientist who said officials violated his privacy rights) is a "clear embarrassment."

The Los Angeles Times reports that Spanish authorities, who were dubious from the start that the prints were Mayfield's, eventually identified them as belonging to an Algerian. Experts say the case highlights the "error potential" for fingerprint matching, which they say is too high.

"This is a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon," said Simon A. Cole, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine and author of 'Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification.' The argument has always been that no two people have fingerprints exactly alike ... But that's not what you need to have an error. What you need is for two people to have very similar fingerprints, and that's what happened here."

Michael Cherry, president of Cherry Biometrics, an identification-technology company, said misidentification problems could grow worse as the US and other governments add more fingerprints to their databases.

"I really believe there are a lot more Mayfields out there," Cherry said. "We just don't know about these cases because the Spanish police don't always get to oversee them. We simply don't have an identification standard that fits with today's times."
And this from the News International:
The FBI examiners had erroneously linked him to a partial fingerprint on a bag of detonators found after terrorists bombed commuter trains in Madrid in March, killing 191 people.

The FBI compounded its error by stridently resisting the conclusions of the Spanish National Police, which notified the FBI three weeks before Mayfield was arrested that the fingerprint did not belong to him, the newspaper said.

Mayfield’s lawsuit alleged that his civil rights had been violated and that he was arrested because he is a Muslim convert who had represented some defendants in terrorism-related cases.

Mayfield said in a statement on Wednesday that he was threatened with the death penalty while in custody, that he and his family were targeted "because of our Muslim religion," and that he looks forward "to the day when the Patriot Act is declared unconstitutional”.

“The power of the government to secretly search your home or business without probable cause, under the guise of an alleged terrorist investigation, must be stopped,” Mayfield said. Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos issued a statement emphasizing that the FBI was not aware of Mayfield’s Muslim faith when he was first identified as a suspect and that investigators “did not misuse any provisions of the USA Patriot Act”. Scolinos also said the FBI has implemented reforms to avoid a similar mistake in the future.

And more on this case from
"You guys just can't understand what it's like when the federal government targets you and fingers you and bears down on you. It is a weight that is hard to describe, it is very overbearing, very awesome and very powerful," Mayfield said.

"Although my family and I can never be made whole for the illegal and unwarranted violations of our privacy, the secret searches of our home and my law office, and the tapping of our phones, the settlement of our financial damages claim allows our case to move forward against the government on its most important issue: that the Patriot Act is unconstitutional," he said.

The Solon case:

Deportation blunder compo likely in millions
While neither side would reveal the size of the payout agreed today after a year of arbitration, it was believed Ms Solon's lawyers had been seeking up to $10m in damages.

Ms Solon, an Australian citizen, was wrongly deported to the Philippines in 2001 after being presumed to be an illegal immigrant. She had been found wandering the streets of Lismore, in northern New South Wales, with leg injuries and was subsequently diagnosed as being mentally ill.

The mother of two was found four years later living in a hospice near Manila run by Catholic nuns.

An investigation by former Victoria Police chief Neil Comrie described the Immigration Department's handling of Ms Solon's case as catastrophic.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone today said she was happy her department and Ms Solon's lawyers had reached a compensation agreement, and she hoped the money would help Ms Solon to move on with her life.

Senator Vanstone said it would not be in the public interest to reveal the size of the payout.

Vanstone refuses to reveal how much Solon debacle will cost
THE agreed phrases are "significant, substantial and appropriate", but taxpayers will never know just how many millions the ill-treatment of Vivian Solon by state and federal agencies will cost them.

The Minister for Immigration, Amanda Vanstone, apologised, but would not be drawn on details of yesterday's long-awaited decision by the former High Court chief justice Sir Anthony Mason on a financial lifetime-care deal for the Brisbane woman deported in 2001 and found four years later at a Philippines hospice for the destitute and dying.

The case will have ramifications for the compensation claim of Cornelia Rau, wrongfully detained for 10 months by police and the Immigration Department.

Her claim has stalled over issues of culpability.

Ms Solon's case revolves around the extent and treatment of injuries she sustained in a road accident in Lismore not long before immigration officers deported her in July 2001 and left her in a wheelchair at Manila airport.

Ms Solon, who lives under 24-hour care in Sydney, has been diagnosed with tetraparesis, which means her limbs and other bodily functions are partially paralysed. She is said to be able to walk only a few metres.

Senator Vanstone was contrite but firm at yesterday's news conference. "I'm very sorry that this happened," she said. "But it did happen, and the appropriate thing then was to set about as quickly and efficiently and as fairly as possible compensating Ms Solon, and I think an arbitration process is what's done that. The arbitration is confidential.


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