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Turkmen v. Ashcroft

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 15, 2013

Ibrahim TURKMEN, Akhilsachdeva, Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi, Anser Mehmood, Benamar Benatta, Ahmed Khalifa, Saeed Hammouda, and Purna Raj Bajracharya on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
John ASHCROFT, former Attorney General of the United States, Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James W. Ziglar, former Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Dennis Hasty, former Warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), Michael Zenk, former Warden MDC, James Sherman, former MDC Associate Warden for Custody; Salvatore Lopresti, former MDC Captain; Joseph Cuciti, former MDC Lieutenant, Defendants.

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Center For Constitutional Rights, New York, N.Y. by Rachel Anne Meeropol, George Gardner, William P. Quigley, Sunita Patel, Michael Winger, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

Neil H. MacBride, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria, VA by Dennis C. Barghaan, Jr., Attorney for Defendant John Ashcroft.

Ronald C. Machen, Jr., United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, Washington, DC, by R. Craig Lawrence, Attorney for Defendant Robert Mueller.

Law Offices of William Alden McDaniel, Jr., Baltimore, MD by William Alden McDaniel, Jr., Attorney for Defendant James Ziglar.

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Crowell & Moring LLP, Washington, DC by David Bell, Michael L. Martinez, Attorneys for Defendant Dennis Hasty.

Duval & Stachenfeld LLP New York, N.Y. by Joshua Klein Attorneys for Defendant Michael Zenk.

Shaw Bransford Veilleux & Roth, P.C., Washington, DC by Debra L. Roth, Attorneys for Defendant James Sherman.

Joseph Cuciti, United States Department of Homeland Security, New York, NY, Defendant Pro Se.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOHN GLEESON, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Ibrahim Turkmen, Akhil Sachdeva, Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi, Anser Mehmood, Benamar Benatta, Ahmed Khalifa, Saeed Hammouda, and Purna Raj Bajracharya bring this putative class action against John Ashcroft, Robert Mueller, James Ziglar, Dennis Hasty, Michael Zenk, James Sherman, Salvatore Lopresti, and Joseph Cuciti. Plaintiffs were arrested and detained by federal authorities in connection with the investigation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. They bring six Bivens claims and a seventh claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985, all arising out of their allegations of discriminatory and punitive detention. The defendants have now moved to dismiss. For the reasons set forth below, the defendants' motions are granted in part and denied in part.

Specifically, the claims based on the alleged harsh conditions of confinement and unlawful strip searches (Claims One, Two and Six) shall proceed against Hasty, Zenk, Sherman, Lopresti, and Cuciti. To the extent they are alleged against Ashcroft, Mueller and Ziglar,[1] the allegations are insufficient and the claims are therefore dismissed as against them. As for the claimed deprivation of the plaintiffs' free exercise rights (Claim Three), I hold that the Bivens damages remedy is extended to this context and that the claim shall proceed against Hasty, Zenk, Sherman, Lopresti, and Cuciti. It is insufficiently pled against Ashcroft, Mueller and Ziglar and is therefore dismissed as against them. The claims based on the alleged communications blackout and interference with counsel (Claims Four and Five) are dismissed as to all defendants on the ground of qualified immunity. Finally, the conspiracy claim (Claim Seven) shall proceed, but only to the extent that the underlying objects of the conspiracy (Claims One through Six) have survived the motion. Thus, it is dismissed as against Ashcroft, Mueller and Ziglar and shall proceed to the extent it alleges a conspiracy by the remaining defendants to commit the civil rights violations alleged in Claims One, Two, Three and Six.

In sum, the case against Ashcroft, Mueller and Ziglar is dismissed in its entirety. Only Claims Four and Five (and the part of Claim Seven that alleges a conspiracy to commit the wrongs charged in Claims Four and Five) are dismissed as against the other defendants. Counsel for the remaining parties are directed to appear before Chief Magistrate Gold for a status conference on January 30, 2013 at 2:00 PM.

BACKGROUND

A. Factual Allegations

1. Overview

The plaintiffs are eight male, non-United States citizens who were arrested on

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immigration charges following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (" 9/11 attacks" ). They were held in immigration custody for periods ranging from three to eight months after receiving final orders of removal or grants of voluntary departure. All but two are Muslims of Middle Eastern, North African, or South Asian origin; the others, natives of India and Nepal, are Hindu. Plaintiffs bring this putative class action on behalf of themselves and a class of male non-citizens who are Arab or Muslim, or were perceived by the defendants to be Arab or Muslim,[2] and were (1) arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (" INS" ) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (" FBI" ) after September 11, 2001, and charged with immigration violations; (2) treated as " of interest" to the government's terrorism investigation; (3) detained under a blanket " hold-until-cleared" policy, pursuant to which they were held without bond until cleared of terrorist ties by the FBI; and (4) confined in the Metropolitan Detention Center (" MDC" ) or the Passaic County Jail (" Passaic Jail" ). I refer to the putative class as the " Detainees."

The Complaint names the following individuals as defendants: (1) John Ashcroft, the former Attorney General of the United States, Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI, and James W. Ziglar, the former Commissioner of the INS (collectively, the " DOJ defendants" ); (2) Dennis Hasty and Michael Zenk, both former wardens of the MDC; and (3) James Sherman, Salvatore Lopresti, and Joseph Cuciti, all former MDC officials of a rank below warden. I refer to Hasty, Zenk, Sherman, Lopresti, and Cuciti collectively as the " MDC defendants."

2. The Treatment of the Detainees [3]

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the defendants acted together to create and implement a series of policies and practices relating to the identification, detention, and treatment of Arab and Muslim noncitizens who had violated immigration laws ( i.e., the Detainees). I refer to this series of policies and practices in the aggregate as the " detention policy." Pursuant to the detention policy, the Detainees were rounded up and detained on their immigration violations so government officials could question them in connection with the ongoing investigation of the 9/11 attacks (the " PENTTBOM investigation" ); they were treated as " of interest" to the PENTTBOM investigation, which meant that they were deemed to be potential terrorists despite the fact that they had been arrested based on immigration violations, not on suspicion of terrorist activity; they were subject to a hold-until-cleared policy, under which they were held for lengthy periods of times— often for months after they were ordered removed from the country— until the FBI affirmatively cleared them of suspicion of wrongdoing; and they were held until their release in extremely restrictive conditions of confinement. The only aspect of the detention policy challenged in the Complaint is the confinement of the Detainees in harsh conditions (" harsh confinement policy" ).

The harsh confinement policy, which was created by the DOJ defendants, was a

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directive to hold the Detainees in restrictive conditions under which they would feel maximum pressure to cooperate with the PENTTBOM investigation. Although this policy mandated that the Detainees' ability to contact the outside world be limited, it did not specify the precise conditions in which they would be held. Rather, the harsh confinement policy was a general mandate, and the exact manner of its implementation was to be determined by officials at the facilities in which the Detainees were held.[4]

The harsh confinement policy was expressly directed at Arab and Muslim noncitizens who had violated immigration laws: It mandated restrictive conditions specifically for Arab and Muslim individuals. In other words, it was discriminatory on its face. This is not to say that no non-Arabs and non-Muslims were held in harsh conditions of confinement as a result of the investigation following the 9/11 attacks. Other individuals may have been held in such conditions pursuant to other policies or for other reasons. However, the harsh confinement policy expressly applied to Arab and Muslim individuals, dictating that those detained under the policy be held in harsh conditions of confinement— not because of any suspected links to terrorism, but because of their race, national origin, and/or religion.

The harsh confinement policy was implemented by the MDC defendants in the following way: The Detainees (the " MDC Detainees" ) were placed in that facility's Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit (the " ADMAX SHU" ). There, they were confined in tiny cells for over 23 hours a day, provided with meager and barely edible food, and prohibited from moving around the unit, using the telephone freely, using the commissary, accessing MDC handbooks (which explained how to file complaints about mistreatment), and keeping any property, including personal hygiene items like toilet paper and soap, in their cells. Whenever they left their cells, they were handcuffed and shackled. Although they were offered the nominal opportunity to visit the recreation area outside of their cells several times a week, the recreation area was exposed to the elements and the MDC Detainees were not offered clothing beyond their standard cotton prison garb and a light jacket. Furthermore, detainees who accepted such offers were often physically abused along the way, and were sometimes left for hours in the cold recreation cell, over their protests, as a form of punishment. As a result, they were constructively denied exercise during the fall and winter.

The MDC Detainees also were denied sleep. Bright lights were kept on in the ADMAX SHU for 24 hours a day (until March 2002), and staff at the MDC made a practice of banging on the MDC Detainees' cell doors and engaging in other conduct designed to keep them from sleeping. They also conducted inmate " counts" at

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midnight, 3:00 a.m., and 5:00 a.m. While such counts are inherently disruptive— officers are required to see the skin of each inmate being counted, see BOP P.S. 5500.09— the officers " went beyond what was required for the count by kicking the door hard with their boots, knocking on the door at night much more frequently than required, and making negative comments when knocking on the door." ¶ 39. For example, for the first two or three weeks that one detainee was in the ADMAX SHU, one of the officers walked by about every 15 minutes throughout the night, kicked the doors to wake up the detainees, and yelled things such as, " Motherfuckers," " Assholes," and " Welcome to America." ¶ 36. In addition, officers used the in-cell camera to watch one detainee, and when he would appear to fall asleep they would kick the cell door.

The MDC Detainees also were subjected to frequent physical and verbal abuse by many of the officers in the ADMAX SHU. The physical abuse included slamming the MDC Detainees into walls; bending or twisting their arms, hands, wrists, and fingers; lifting them off the ground by their arms; pulling on their arms and handcuffs; stepping on their leg restraints; restraining them with handcuffs and/or shackles even while in their cells; and handling them in other rough and inappropriate ways. The use of such force was unnecessary because the MDC Detainees were always fully compliant with orders and rarely engaged in misconduct. The verbal abuse included referring to the MDC Detainees as " terrorists" and other offensive names, threatening them with violence, cursing at them, insulting their religion, and making humiliating sexual comments during strip-searches.

Both the MDC Detainees and the Detainees held at the Passaic Jail (the " Passaic Detainees" ) were subjected to unreasonable and punitive strip-searches. The MDC Detainees were strip-searched every time they were removed from or returned to their cells, including before and after visiting with their attorneys, receiving medical care, using the recreation area, attending a court hearing, and being transferred to another cell. They were strip-searched upon each arrival at the MDC in the receiving and discharge area and again after they had been escorted— shackled and under continuous guard— to the ADMAX SHU. These strip-searches occurred even when they had no conceivable opportunity to obtain contraband, such as before and after non-contact attorney visits (to and from which they were escorted— handcuffed and shackled— by a four-man guard). Supp. OIG Rep. at 3. The MDC had no written policy governing when to conduct strip-searches, and they were conducted inconsistently.

The strip-searches were unnecessary to security within the MDC. Rather, they were conducted to punish and humiliate the detainees. Female officers were often present during the strip-searches; the strip-searches were regularly videotaped in their entirety (contrary to BOP policy, see BOP P.S. 5521.05); and MDC officers routinely laughed and made inappropriate sexual comments during the strip-searches.

Officers at the MDC and the Passaic Jail also interfered with the Detainees' ability to practice and observe their Muslim faith. Specifically, when the Detainees requested copies of the Koran, officers delayed for weeks or months before providing them; the MDC and the Passaic Jail failed to provide food that conformed to the Halal diet, despite the Detainees' requests for such food; the MDC had no clock visible to the MDC Detainees, and officers regularly refused to tell them the time of day or the date so they could

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conform to daily Islam prayer requirements and observe Ramadan; and officers constantly interrupted the Detainees' prayers by banging on their cell doors, yelling and making noise, screaming derogatory anti-Muslim comments, videotaping them, handing out hygiene supplies, and/or telling them to " shut the fuck up" while they were trying to pray.

In addition, most of the MDC Detainees were held incommunicado during the first weeks of their detention (the " communications blackout" ). MDC staff repeatedly turned away everyone, including lawyers and relatives, who came to the MDC looking for the MDC Detainees, and thus the MDC Detainees had neither legal nor social visits during this period. This communications blackout lasted until mid-October 2011.

After the initial communications blackout, the MDC Detainees were nominally permitted one call per week to an attorney. However, MDC officers obstructed Detainees' efforts to telephone and retain lawyers in multiple ways. They were denied sufficient information to obtain legal counsel; although they were given a list of organizations that provide free legal services, the contact information for these organizations was outdated and inaccurate. Legal calls that resulted in a wrong number or busy signal were counted against their quota of calls, as were calls answered by voicemail. Officers frequently asked the MDC Detainees, " Are you okay?," and if the MDC Detainees responded affirmatively, the officers construed this as a waiver of their already-limited privilege to make legal calls. The officers also often brought the phone to the MDC Detainees early in the morning before law offices opened for the day. And they frequently pretended to dial a requested number or deliberately dialed a wrong number and then claimed the line was dead or busy. They then refused to dial again, saying that the Detainee had exhausted his quota.

When the MDC Detainees managed to reach their attorneys by phone, the officers frequently stood within hearing distance of conversations that should have been treated as privileged. Legal visits were non-contact and the MDC Detainees were handcuffed and shackled during the entirety of the visits. The MDC video- and audio-recorded the MDC Detainees' legal visits until April 2002 or later.

The MDC Detainees were nominally permitted one social call per month after the initial communications blackout. However, these calls were just as severely restricted as the legal calls. Social visits were restricted to immediate family, yet even immediate family members were sometimes turned away. As with their legal visits, social visits were non-contact and the MDC Detainees were handcuffed and shackled during the entirety of the visits.

3. The Plaintiffs

a. Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi

Abbasi, a citizen of Pakistan and a devout Muslim, entered the United States in 1993 on a visitor visa. He applied unsuccessfully for political asylum, and he remained in the United States illegally after his application was denied. He initially worked as a taxicab driver in Manhattan, saving enough money to purchase a small grocery store, which he sold sometime before 2001.

Abbasi was arrested by the FBI on September 25, 2001. He was interviewed by officials from the FBI, INS, and the New York Police Department (" NYPD" ), who gave him no information regarding why he was being detained. The officials asked, among other things, about Abbasi's religious beliefs and practices. Abbasi later

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learned that his arrest had resulted from a report that a " male[,] possibly Arab" (apparently Abbasi's houseguest) had presented a false Social Security card at the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles and had given Abbasi's address as his own. Abbasi was detained in the ADMAX SHU at the MDC.

b. Anser Mehmood

Mehmood, a citizen of Pakistan and a devout Muslim, entered the United States in 1989 with his wife, Uzma (Abbasi's sister), and their three children. Mehmood entered on a business visa but remained illegally after the visa expired. He started a trucking business in the United States, making enough money to purchase a home and to send funds to his extended family in Pakistan. Mehmood and his family settled in Bayonne, New Jersey. Another child, an American citizen by birth, was born in 2000. All four of the children attended public school in New Jersey. In May 2001, another of Uzma's brothers, who is an American citizen, submitted an immigration petition for Mehmood and his family.

On October 3, 2001, a team of FBI and INS agents visited Mehmood and his wife in their home based on the same report that led to Abbasi's arrest. The agents interviewed Mehmood and his wife about their immigration status, showed them images of people they did not recognize, and asked whether they were involved in jihad. The agents, who sought information on another of Uzma's brothers, who was living in Pakistan, told Mehmood that they needed to arrest either Mehmood or his wife. They arrested Mehmood at his request. Mehmood was detained in the ADMAX SHU at the MDC.

c. Benamar Benatta

Benatta, an Algerian citizen and member of the Algerian Air Force, entered the United States on a visitor visa on December 31, 2000. He was granted entry in order to study aviation at Northrop Grumman, but he remained in the United States after the expiration of his visa with the goal of seeking political asylum and gaining employment. On September 5, 2001, six days before the terrorist attacks, he crossed the Canadian border using false documentation with the intent to apply for refugee status there, but was detained by Canadian authorities for investigation. On September 12, he was transported back to the United States and turned over to the INS's custody.

At the Rainbow Bridge border control post in Niagara Falls, New York, Benatta was interrogated by the FBI regarding his false documentation. A report of the interrogation was disseminated, and the INS subsequently commenced removal proceedings. Benatta was served with a Notice to Appear at immigration court in Batavia, New York, but on September 16, 2001, before the proceeding occurred and before Benatta was able to retain counsel, he was transferred to the ADMAX SHU at the MDC.

d. Ahmed Khalifa

Khalifa, a medical student from Egypt, was in the United States for three months on a student visa and had a return ticket to Egypt for October 15, 2001. On September 30, 2001, the apartment he shared with several other Egyptian friends was raided by FBI, NYPD, and INS agents on a tip that several Arabs living at Khalifa's address were renting out a post office box and possibly sending out large quantities of money. The agents initially did not seem interested in Khalifa, although they asked him about his roommates, searched his wallet, and asked if he had had anything to do with the recent terrorist attacks. The agents subsequently determined that they wanted to hold Khalifa as

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well, and an FBI agent asked an INS agent to arrest Khalifa for working while in the United States on his student visa. Khalifa was detained in the ADMAX SHU at the MDC.

e. Purna Raj Bajracharya

Bajracharya, a citizen of Nepal, entered the United States in 1996 on a three-month visa. For the next five years he remained in Queens illegally, working at various odd jobs and sending money to his wife and sons in Nepal. Bajracharya intended to return to Nepal in the fall or winter 2001, and he began videotaping certain New York streets to show his family. An employee of the Queens County District Attorney's Office reported to the FBI on October 25, 2001 that an " Arab male" was videotaping a building that contained the District Attorney's office and an FBI branch office. District Attorney staff promptly detained and searched him.

During Bajracharya's initial detention and interrogation, which lasted for five hours, FBI and INS agents requested that he bring them to his apartment. He did so, and showed the agents his passport and various identification documents. He admitted that he had overstayed his visa and was illegally present in the United States, and the INS then arrested him. He was detained in the ADMAX SHU at the MDC.

f. Ibrahim Turkmen

Turkmen, a Muslim Imam, is a citizen of Turkey. He came to the United States on October 4, 2000 on a six-month tourist visa to visit a friend from Turkey who lived on Long Island. Shortly after his arrival, Turkmen found work at a service station in Bellport, New York. He worked there until January 2001, when he took a job at another service station in the same town. In April 2001, he left that job and began to work part-time for a local Turkish construction company. He spoke regularly to his wife and four daughters, who remained in Turkey, and sent money to support them on a weekly basis.

Turkmen spoke virtually no English when he first arrived in the United States. During his stay, he learned only the words necessary for his limited daily interaction with English-speakers. At the time that he was taken into custody, Turkmen understood very little spoken English, and he could not read English at all.

On October 13, 2001, two FBI agents visited Turkmen at the West Babylon, New York apartment where he was staying with several Turkish friends. The visit was based on a tip from the friends' landlady, who reported to an FBI hotline that she had rented her apartment to several Middle Eastern men and that she " would feel awful if her tenants were involved in terrorism and [she] didn't call." ¶ 251. The agents asked Turkmen whether he had any involvement in the 9/11 attacks and whether he had any association with terrorists. They also inquired as to his immigration status. Turkmen had difficulty understanding the questions posed to him in English by the FBI, and no interpreter was provided. Turkmen denied any ...


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