A wrongful death lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeks damages from the federal government for the allegedly unlawful killings of United States citizens abroad. The families of several people killed overseas by unmanned drone aircraft are claiming violations of the decedents’ constitutional rights as U.S. citizens. Unlike many wrongful death lawsuits, this suit alleges violations of statutory and constitutional rights, rather than negligence, by the government. The lawsuit is sure to generate public controversy, particularly since the government asserted national security reasons for the drone attacks.
Nasser al-Aulaqi (sometimes spelled al-Awlaki) and Sarah Khan, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed suit against federal government officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, in mid-July 2012. Their complaint alleges that the federal government has engaged in targeted killings of suspected terrorists abroad since 2001. Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen living in Yemen, was added to a “kill list” in late 2009 or early 2010, based on suspicion of terrorist activity or support.
On September 30, 2011, the complaint says, unmanned drones operated by the CIA and the Department of Defense fired missiles at a vehicle in Yemen containing Anwar al-Aulaqi. The blast killed al-Aulaqi and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan. Another drone strike on October 14, 2011, also allegedly authorized by the defendants, killed at least seven people at a restaurant in Yemen, including another U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi’s 16 year-old son Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi.
The plaintiffs are the personal representatives of the decedents. They allege that the killings were unlawful. None of the three decedents presented a specific and imminent threat, they allege, as required by the U.S. Constitution and international law since the U.S. is not engaged in armed conflict with Yemen. Regarding Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, the plaintiffs also argue that neither person was a direct target of the U.S. government. As a result, the government had a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to them but failed to do so.
The lawsuit claims violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Bill of Attainder Clause, which generally prohibits extrajudicial punishment. The government’s drone attacks violated the decedent’s Fifth Amendment rights to due process, the complaints states, and their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure. It also amounted to an unconstitutional act of attainder. The ACLU has stated that the lawsuit’s purpose is to determine whether the government had a justification for ordering the killings, but without minimizing the allegations of the government against Anwar al-Aulaqi.
The closest analogy to a lawsuit that might occur in a city like Washington, DC would be a claim for police brutality. A person injured, or the family of a person killed, by a police officer acting in the course of the officer’s official duties may claim civil rights violations. Such a claim seeks to determine whether an officer had justification for use of force, and seeks damages to hold the officer and the police department accountable if force was not justified.
At Lebowitz & Mzhen, we help people in the Washington, DC area who have suffered injuries due to the negligent or unlawful conduct of others to recover their just compensation. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.
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Photo credit: ‘Yemen map’ by Master of Puppets at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.