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One Million Dollars a Week for Wrongful Arrest

Though I don't doubt that the FBI wrongly arrested Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield after the 2004 Madrid terrorist bombings, his recent $2 million settlement (as reported in this article from Law.com 11/30/06) seems excessive. Mayfield was arrested and held for a little over two weeks -- then it was discovered that the FBI misidentified his fingerprint. In addition, according to this account, Mayfield's computer hard drives were seized, and his residence was subject to surveillance because of the erroneous information provided by foreign authorities about his connection to the Madrid bombing. A year after his arrest, the federal government apologized for its conduct.

Mayfield's settlement means that his compensation amounts to $1 million per week. Contrast that with amounts typically paid for wrongful conviction, which, according to this recent article, range from $20,000 to $1 million in some states (other states don't impose limits). And even where amounts for wrongful conviction are large -- for example, as reported at the Northwest Wrongful Convictions Web site, Alejandro Dominguez was awarded $9 million by a jury for wrongful conviction -- he also spent four years in prison.    

Others, however, view Mayfield's settlement amount as justified. This piece from the New York Times discusses the reaction of legal experts:

“You almost never see something like this,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a legal clinic in New York City. “It’s extraordinary, but the harm caused him was extraordinary. What I really think it speaks to is just how clearly the U.S. government crossed the line when it went after Mayfield.”

Seems to me that spending four years in jail following a wrongful conviction is a far more extraordinary harm than two weeks of wrongful arrest (in fact, Neufeld and Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project recently settled a legal malpractice action for $900,000 with a client who had been wrongfully convicted and held for six years. That's six times longer than Mayfield spent in prison and only half as much recovered).

Ultimately, however, Mayfield apparently had leverage that ordinary victims of wrongful conviction do not. Suzanne Spaulding, a former lawyer with the CIA, stated in the NYT article that:

“You’ve got to think that the Justice Department did not want to make that concession [of allowing Mayfield to continue his challenge to the Patriot Act]” she said. “That and the two million dollars are further evidence that they were vulnerable and that he clearly had some significant leverage in these negotiations.”

As I said at the outset, the FBI clearly wronged Mayfield. I'm just not sure that I see that the government's errors entitle Mayfield to $2 million when others, who suffered far worse as the result of government error, recover far less.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 30, 2006 at 04:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

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