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Feds to Habeeb: Our bad

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On April 1, 2003, Abdul Ameer Yousef Habeeb was on his way to Washington, D.C. when he stepped off an Amtrak passenger car during a scheduled stop in Havre. He was spotted by border patrol agents and, though he did nothing wrong, he wasn’t allowed to reboard the train. Now the United States government is apologizing to Habeeb, an Iraqi refugee living in Washington, for unlawfully stopping, interrogating, arresting, imprisoning and seeking to deport him.

“You are an Iraqi who was admitted into the United States as a refugee,” a Seattle U.S. Attorney wrote in a June 13 letter to Habeeb. “You did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.”

Last summer a U.S. District Court Judge in Great Falls threw out a lawsuit against two Montana-based U.S. Border Patrol agents who stopped and detained Habeeb. The lawsuit alleged that the two agents singled him out for questioning based on his race, and sought compensatory and punitive damages against the arresting agents and their superiors. The American Civil Liberties Unions of Montana and Washington supported Habeeb in his suit, hoping it would prove a good test case for the government’s respect of Fourth Amendment laws post-9/11. In June 2006, District Judge Sam Haddon dismissed that lawsuit, stating, in part, “It would be absurd…to declare that law enforcement personnel, and border protection officers in particular, were acting unconstitutionally if they availed themselves of their ability to distinguish between people based on appearance.”

But Haddon vacated that ruling as erroneous as part Habeeb’s settlement. Habeeb will also receive $250,000 in damages along with a full apology from the Justice Department.

Scott Crichton, executive director of ALCU Montana, said throwing out Haddon’s original ruling was a critical part of the settlement.

“Essentially, if [Haddon] hadn’t vacated that order, the ruling would have stayed on the books and subsequent challenges would have had a court precedent,” Crichton said, pointing out that Haddon’s original decision approved of racial profiling by law enforcement officers and removed their burden to know and understand the laws they are obligated to enforce.

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