SCOTUS to consider immunity of police on joint state-federal task forces in bungled sex-trafficking prosecution

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Later this month, the Supreme Court will consider a case arising out of a botched sex-trafficking investigation about whether state and local police officers enjoy immunity from lawsuits when they are federally cross-deputized as members of joint state-federal task forces.

Three young women, including Ifrah Yassin, are suing the Saint Paul, Minnesota, Police Department, claiming their Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled against them last July.

The petition in Yassin v. Weyker, court file 22-533, is scheduled to be considered by the justices on Feb. 17.

The case goes back to 2010 when Saint Paul Officer Heather Weyker claimed to have nabbed members of a child sex-trafficking ring that supposedly stretched over four states. Thirty people, almost all of whom were refugees from Somalia, were given jail terms, according to a New York Times summary.

Later, the trial judge held that Weyker had misstated or made up facts and lied to a grand jury and at a detention hearing. Somehow, three young women got caught up in the investigation. They said in court filings that Weyker had them detained on false charges. One of them, then-high school student Hamdi Mohamud, said the officer “took my life away.”

“If a federal law enforcement officer lies, manipulates witnesses, and falsifies evidence, should the officer be liable for damages?” the 8th Circuit asked rhetorically before ruling in favor of the officer.

Over 20 civil lawsuits have reportedly been lodged against Weyker. Several of the suits were tossed because of qualified immunity, a rule invented by the courts that shields law enforcement officials from individual liability unless the person violated a clearly established right.

Weyker “fabricated a crime ring and single-handedly ruined the lives of dozens of people, who she landed in federal prison through what one federal appeals court labeled ‘lies and manipulation,’” according to the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm that is representing lead plaintiff Yassin.

Although qualified immunity lawsuits against police officers have generally not fared well in the courts, this case takes the level of complexity up a notch.

That’s because two layers of governmental immunity shielded Weyker. She was protected by state law as a police officer. Because she was deputized as a federal officer so she could work on a joint state-federal task force, she enjoyed federal immunity as well.

Although members of joint task forces act under both state and federal law, courts make would-be plaintiffs whose rights have been violated pursue their claims against joint task force members under the more restrictive legal regime governing liability for federal officials.

“In practice, this means that individuals have no remedy against task-force officers because courts now grant federal officers de facto federal immunity,” IJ said.

Institute for Justice senior attorney Patrick Jaicomo said Weyker was working with the FBI and had been temporarily deputized as a special U.S. marshal.

“For reasons that aren’t completely clear, because much of this litigation has been stymied, Heather Weyker, with a couple of witnesses she was coaching, made up a wide-ranging sex trafficking ring involving Somali refugees, and ultimately, convinced federal prosecutors in Tennessee,” to move forward with the case, the lawyer told The Epoch Times in an interview.

In the end, every single person charged in the alleged crime ring “either had the charges dismissed or was acquitted of those charges, which is remarkable because the [U.S. Department of Justice’s] conviction rate is above 99 percent,” he said.

The courts found that Weyker’s actions were not shielded by qualified immunity “because every reasonable officer would know that you can’t lie to have someone arrested to protect a sham investigation,” Jaicomo said.

But the courts also determined that because Weyker was working on the joint state-federal task force, she could not be sued, the attorney said.

If the Supreme Court doesn’t reverse the lower courts, “none of the people who Weyker wronged in either that sex trafficking ring investigation or Ifrah and her two friends, will get any sort of accountability from Heather Weyker. She’s never been charged with a crime. She’s still working making six figures as a Saint Paul police officer,” he said.

A well-publicized criminal defendant who spent four years in an Italian prison after she was convicted of the murder of a fellow exchange student but was later exonerated and returned to the United States in 2015, weighed in on the case, filing a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to accept Yassin’s appeal.

Amanda Knox was personally harmed “when she was wrongly accused of murder while studying abroad in Italy. At the time, those in the United States who believed in Amanda’s innocence insisted that the injustices Amanda endured were a result of Italy’s system and that such abuses would never occur here,” the brief (pdf) states.

“But as Ifrah Yassin’s case demonstrates, that is simply not true.”

“We in the United States are not exempt from government abuse; we are not immune to rights deprivations. To the contrary, Ifrah’s case demonstrates that it is government officials who are immunized from responsibility for upholding the Constitution’s demands,” the brief continues.

“By sanctioning yet another avenue for government officials to escape liability—through  simple cross-deputization on federal task forces,” various federal courts of appeal “have eroded constitutional protections and placed every citizen in their jurisdictions at greater risk.”

The Epoch Times has reached out to the Saint Paul Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice for comment on this article.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Feb. 1, 2023, in The Epoch Times.