An Egyptian student detained after a pilot’s aviation radio was found in his hotel room following the Sept. 11 attacks should be allowed to sue an FBI agent over his imprisonment, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Abdallah Higazy, the son of an Egyptian diplomat, should be allowed to try to prove that the actions of an FBI agent, Michael Templeton, caused him to be unjustly criminally charged and imprisoned for 34 days.
Higazy claimed he was charged with making false statements after Templeton coerced him into changing his story several times by screaming at him, lying to him and threatening him.
The student became embroiled in the wide ranging probe into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after a worker at the Millennium Hilton Hotel overlooking the trade center site said that a handheld pilot radio was found in a safe in the room where Higazy had been staying on Sept. 11.
After leaving the hotel in a rush along with other guests on that day, he was summoned to return on Dec. 17, 2001, to collect his belongings. The FBI then began to question him about the pilot radio.
Higazy was charged with making false statements to investigators when he told them several different stories about how the radio had come to be in his room. Prosecutors said the radio was found in the safe, on top of a Quran and his passport.
He was freed only after another hotel guest, a private pilot, went to claim his own belongings on Jan. 14, 2002 and told hotel officials that the radio belonged to him.
A hotel security guard later confessed that he falsely stated to FBI agents that the radio was found in a locked safe in the student’s room when it was actually found on a table in the room, where it could have been moved by hotel employees following the attacks.
Rebecca Carmichael, a spokeswoman for government lawyers, said she had no comment on the ruling.
Jonathan Abady, a lawyer for Higazy, called the ruling important and said it marked “a great day for the Constitution.”
“The Constitution of the United States does not permit a law enforcement official to coerce a confession and introduce it against an individual in a criminal proceeding,” he said.
Abady said Higazy responded to FBI threats against himself and his family by concluding, “if I tell them what they want to hear, I’ll go to prison and my family will be spared.”
The lawsuit claimed that the coercion and use of the confession at a bail hearing to keep Higazy detained was a violation of his Fifth Amendment guarantee against compulsory self-incrimination.
The appeals court said prior court rulings had firmly established by early 2002 that a coerced confession could not constitutionally be used against a defendant in a criminal case, including at a bail hearing.
The appeals court overruled a lower court judge who had tossed the civil lawsuit out.
It said it needed to decide if a law enforcement officer in Templeton’s position would have known that he was violating Higazy’s rights if he let a coerced confession be used to keep him incarcerated and to support criminal charges.
“We believe that a reasonable jury could conclude that he would,” the appeals panel wrote.
The jury could conclude “that it was not reasonable for an officer to believe that it was constitutional to coerce a confession and then to hand that information to a prosecutor without divulging the means by which the confession was acquired for use in a criminal case.”
Higazy was in the hotel as two hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers because he was assigned there by a student aid group in Washington when he arrived later than expected for classes at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, where he was a graduate computer engineering student. In the late 1980s he attended D.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and Northern Virginia Community College. He now lives and works in Egypt.
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