U.S. Settles Suit Filed by Ore. Lawyer
Thursday, November 30, 2006
The U.S. government agreed yesterday to pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by an Oregon lawyer who was arrested and jailed for two weeks in 2004 after the FBI bungled a fingerprint match and mistakenly linked him to a terrorist attack in Spain.
Under the terms of the settlement filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Portland, the government also issued an unusual apology to Brandon Mayfield for the "suffering" caused by his wrongful arrest and imprisonment. It acknowledged that the ordeal was "deeply upsetting" to Mayfield and his family.
Mayfield will be able to continue pursuing his legal challenge to the constitutionality of the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law, which was used to obtain his personal records while he was under investigation.
The payment is a clear embarrassment for the FBI, which arrested Mayfield as a material witness in May 2004. 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 bureau 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.
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.
The settlement includes payments of $1.9 million to Mayfield and $25,000 each to his wife and three daughters, according to court documents. The amount is more than twice what the U.S. government agreed to pay earlier this year to Wen Ho Lee, a U.S. nuclear scientist who alleged that officials violated privacy laws by identifying him as a suspect in a spying investigation.
The government has also agreed to destroy all material obtained during electronic surveillance of Mayfield and clandestine searches of his home and office.
The case has become a potent symbol for civil liberties advocates who argue that it shows how easily the government can abuse its powers to detain alleged terrorism suspects under relaxed standards of probable cause.
Mayfield said in a statement yesterday 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.
A report released in March by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found that although Mayfield's religion was not a factor in his initial identification, it contributed to the FBI's reluctance to reexamine its conclusions after challenges from Spanish police.
Fine also found that the FBI used expanded powers under the Patriot Act to demand personal information about Mayfield from banks and other companies, and that the law "amplified the consequences" of the FBI's mistakes by allowing other government agencies to share flawed information.
On March 11, 2004, terrorists later linked to al-Qaeda detonated bombs on several commuter trains in Madrid. The FBI assisted Spanish police by comparing latent fingerprints found nearby on a bag of detonators against its massive fingerprint database, which includes prints from former U.S. soldiers. Mayfield served in the U.S. Army.
Two FBI examiners and a unit chief eventually narrowed the fingerprint match to Mayfield. Spanish police conducted their own analysis and concluded that the print was not Mayfield's. The FBI disputed that finding, dispatching an examiner to Madrid to press its case. Mayfield was arrested three weeks later amid media leaks about the ongoing investigation.
The FBI, which did not comment on yesterday's settlement, has repeatedly said that there were unusual similarities between Mayfield's fingerprints and the one found on the bag of detonators, which was eventually identified as belonging to an Algerian national named Ouhnane Daoud. FBI officials also have denied that Mayfield's status as a Muslim convert influenced investigators' treatment of him.