Agency and Constitutional Law - Civil Liability of United States Officials for Acts Committed against Non-Resident Aliens - Rasul V. Myers, 512 F.3d 644 (D.C. Cir. 2008)

Article excerpt

The Constitution protects the basic civil rights and freedoms of United States citizens against governmental abuse. (1) The rights of aliens--particularly detainee aliens not held on U.S. soil--are more limited. (2) In Rasul v. Myers, (3) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit considered whether former detainees at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Guantanamo) could assert civil, conventional, and constitutional rights against their military captors for illegal detention and torture. (4) The court dismissed the detainee plaintiffs' claims after finding the detainees had not exhausted their administrative remedies and that such protections did not extend to non-resident aliens. (5)

In late 2001, the four plaintiffs traveled as civilians through Pakistan and Afghanistan on alleged humanitarian and religious missions. (6) Militiamen captured the four men and transferred them to the U.S. government. (7) In early 2002, the United States moved the detainees to Guantanamo, where they remained until their repatriation to the United Kingdom in 2004. (8)

In late 2004, the detainees filed a complaint against several U.S. officials. (9) The detainees alleged arbitrary detention and torture under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), as well as violations of the Geneva Conventions, the Eighth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). (10) The detainees also claimed physical and psychological injuries as a result of their detention at Guantanamo. (11)

The district court dismissed the ATS, Geneva Conventions, and constitutional claims, concluding that the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), pursuant to the Westfall Act, provided the exclusive remedy for such official acts, and that the detainees had not exhausted their administrative remedies. (12) The district court also concluded that aliens constituted "persons" under RFRA entitled to protection, and that the defendants had violated the detainees' religious freedoms. (13) The detainees appealed the dismissal of their ATS, Geneva Conventions, and constitutional claims, while the defendants appealed the district court's RFRA finding. (14) The District of Columbia Circuit upheld the dismissal of the detainees' claims but reversed the lower court's RFRA decision, holding that RFRA should be interpreted according to other constitutional provisions that exclude non-resident aliens from the definition of a "person." (15)

The Westfall Act provides that in a suit against a government official, if the Attorney General certifies that the official acted within the scope of his duties, any claim arising out of his actions becomes a claim against the United States, rather than the official individually. (16) In such cases, the FTCA remedy is the exclusive remedy. (17) Generally, an official's conduct is within the scope of his employment if it is of the kind he is employed to perform, it occurs within authorized time and space limits, it is done with a purpose to serve his employer, and, if the servant intentionally uses force against another, that use of force is foreseeable by the employer. (18)

Additionally, the Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be deprived of his liberty without due process, and the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. (19) Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that detainees at Guantanamo, as aliens without property or presence in the United States, lack constitutional rights because Cuba, not the United States, has sovereignty over Guantanamo. (20) Guantanamo detainees, however, do have a statutory right to habeas review. (21) An official's act that violates a detainee's constitutional rights is subject to qualified immunity if the right was not clearly established at the time of the act. (22) A constitutional right is clearly established if a reasonable official would understand that he was violating the right at the time of his act. …