March 27, 2003
MIAMI -- Former Attorney General Janet Reno and other federal officials have immunity from an excessive force lawsuit filed by the Miami relatives of young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, an appellate court ruled.
Reno, former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner and former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder cannot be sued for their official actions unless it can be shown that they knew the agents would violate the Gonzalez family's rights when they seized the boy, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling made public Wednesday.
The family failed to meet that standard, the Atlanta court said, reversing a lower court ruling.
Family attorney Larry Klayman said a new version of the lawsuit would be filed with language that would meet legal scrutiny.
Armed federal agents removed Elian, then 6, from the family's home before dawn on April 22, 2000, five months after he was rescued from the Atlantic Ocean. His mother and others died trying to reach Florida by boat.
He had been turned over to his Miami relatives pending a ruling on whether he would be returned to his father in Cuba, but the family balked when the government decided he should go.
Reno ordered the raid, and within hours Elian was reunited with his father. The pair soon returned to Cuba.
The Miami relatives alleged the agents used excessive force. People who were at the house said they were kicked, punched, thrown to the ground, gassed with pepper spray and tear gas, held at gunpoint and restrained.
The court emphasized that it was not ruling on whether excessive force was used.
Reno said she was "very gratified," while Meissner said the ruling was "the right thing."
Holder, now in private practice in Washington, D.C., said he hoped the ruling would help put the issue to rest. Officials at the Justice Department, which pursued the appeal, declined to comment on the ruling.
Armando Gutierrez, who served as a spokesman for the Gonzalez family, said the ruling was "a bad decision, and I hope that the lawyers appeal it."
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney who was in the house during the raid, acting as a third party negotiating for Elian's surrender, said, "There should be greater accountability rather than immunity when public officials direct operations that result in illegal and unconstitutional actions."