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Two years ago this week, federal agents busted down the door to Lazaro Gonzalez’s Little Havana home in Miami. To make sure the numerous demonstrators outside didn’t interfere with the early-morning raid, the federal agents sprayed tear gas on some of them. Then, at gunpoint, they seized 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the arms of Donato Dalrymple, who had taken credit for helping rescue the Cuban-born boy from the sea. Elian was traveling by boat with his mother and other Cubans to Florida when the boat capsized and all except Elian and two adults drowned. On Tuesday, before a packed courtroom of people who opposed the boy’s return to his father in Cuba, lawyers for former Attorney General Janet Reno asked a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Miami to dismiss two separate lawsuits brought against Reno. One was filed by Dalrymple and dozens of others for injuries they claim they suffered during the raid. The second action was brought by Elian’s great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, his wife, Angela, and his daughter, Marisleysis, against Reno and two other government officials on charges that the gun-wielding agents used excessive force to seize the boy. Reno’s lawyers contend that her position as U.S. attorney general gave her “qualified immunity” from being personally sued and that the plaintiffs are asking the court to “take the extraordinary step of imposing personal liability for the officers’ alleged actions” on the former attorney general. During Tuesday’s hearing, Larry Klayman, who heads Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based group which filed the suit on behalf of Dalrymple and other raid bystanders, equated the raid on the Lazaro Gonzalez home, in which there were no serious injuries, to the federal government’s 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which Reno also ordered. “Our clients were gassed, beaten and punched, when all they were doing was praying for the American dream,” Klayman told the court. Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim that “by unleashing a force of 151 heavily armed [Immigration and Naturalization Service] shock troops” who “gassed, beat, kicked, punched and held at gunpoint” the plaintiffs, Reno violated their constitutional rights under the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments. The basis of the First Amendment claim was that the federal agents used force against the plaintiffs in order to punish them for exercising their right to assemble and protest a government action. The Fourth Amendment claim alleged that the arrest and search warrants were invalid, and that the federal agents used excessive force in executing those warrants. The Fifth Amendment claim was that the alleged excessive force constituted a lack of due process. During the hearing, Scott McIntosh, an attorney in the civil division of the Justice Department, told the court the plaintiffs had failed to establish that Reno instructed the federal agents participating in the raid to use excessive force. “In order to impose liability on the attorney general, one would have to find that if officers acted with excessive force, the attorney general in Washington would have had to be clairvoyant and from 1,000 miles away knew what was happening and directed the action,” he said. Reno, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Florida governor, has repeatedly defended her decision to order the raid and seize Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives’ home and return him to his father in Cuba. Last October, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore of the Southern District of Florida dismissed similar lawsuits against two other top Clinton administration officials, former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. Moore also dismissed the Fifth Amendment claim against Reno. But he let the First and Fourth Amendment claims stand, saying “a reasonable officer in Reno’s position would know that the law forbade her from directing the execution of a warrant in a manner that called for unjustified force against bystanders.” The plaintiffs allege that they were intentionally targeted simply because they opposed efforts to return Elian to his father; they are seeking $100 million in damages. Ronald Guralnick, a solo Miami lawyer, filed suit on behalf of the Gonzalez family. Last June, U.S. District Judge Shelby Highsmith in Miami rejected the government’s request to entirely dismiss the Gonzalez family’s lawsuit against Reno, Meissner and Holder. While he tossed claims that the three officials conspired to violate the Gonzalez family’s constitutional rights, he ruled that the case could go forward on the grounds that gun-wielding agents may have used excessive force during the raid. Guralnick portrayed his clients as innocent bystanders who were on the phone with Reno negotiating Elian’s safe return to his father when “150 men dressed in combat gear” burst through their front door. “What did these people do? They tried to care for the boy and an entire army invades their house,” said Guralnick, who after Tuesday’s hearing was hailed by some courtroom spectators. Judicial Watch claims that three days before the raid, the 11th Circuit issued an injunction that prevented Elian from leaving or attempting to leave the country and ordering government officials to take steps to ensure he didn’t. The group contends that two days before the raid, Lazaro Gonzalez began “good-faith” negotiations to reach an agreement regarding the transfer of the boy to his father and that despite these negotiations, the INS “secretly” issued an arrest warrant for Elian the next day. That warrant, claims Judicial Watch in its brief to the court, “falsely asserted” that Elian was in the country illegally and, therefore, it was invalid. Judicial Watch also claims that the INS received a search warrant to enter the Gonzalez home by falsely claiming that Elian was being unlawfully restrained. “In short, the INS sought to ‘arrest’ an alleged kidnap victim,” wrote lawyers for Judicial Watch in their brief. The plaintiffs allege that Reno bowed to political pressures to resolve the issue and that her decision to move ahead with the raid was “motivated by a desire to retaliate against protesters” because the first thing the agents did “was direct their gas attack squarely at the peacefully assembled persons … who were gathered to demonstrate their support for Elian and the Gonzalez family.” But Gregory Katsas, a deputy attorney general with the Justice Department, argued that none of the injuries suffered “are akin to the kind of injuries this court has found to constitute an excessive force claim.” The judges didn’t indicate when they would rule.

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