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It began as a promising second date.

Norhan Askar and Winston Smith enjoyed a walleye sandwich, beef bites and coconut shrimp at Stella's Fish Cafe the afternoon of June 3, 2021. After their meal, they were sitting in Smith's car atop a parking ramp when members of the North Star Fugitive Task Force boxed the couple in to apprehend Smith on a gun warrant. Claiming Smith disobeyed commands and brandished a gun, they shot and killed him, shattering windows that injured Askar.

Askar's attorneys announced in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis last summer that they would sue officers in the U.S. Marshals Service-run task force who fired their guns: two Ramsey and Hennepin county deputy sheriffs. But U.S. District Court Judge David S. Doty dismissed the suit last month, highlighting the challenges of winning cases against members of joint local-federal task forces.

The big question: Who were the law enforcement officers technically working for at the time, local sheriff's offices or the federal government? It makes a major difference in liability and success of lawsuits, legal experts explained. The way the law works, it's more difficult for citizens to win such cases against federal employees.

Askar sought damages for civil rights violations, accusing the officers of negligence for harming her, along with claims of assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

She claimed she "suffered severe emotional trauma" from officers firing into the car and that officers had "consciously disregarded the serious risk of great harm to Ms. Askar that defendants had themselves created." The officers screamed commands and pointed guns at her, Askar said, even though she had not acted in a dangerous manner or committed a crime, and they violated her civil rights by injuring her arm, leg and torso by using excessive force.

Askar argued that the task force members were clearly acting in their local capacity, citing memorandums of understanding that the counties had with the U.S. Marshals Service that stipulate that each agency "retains responsibility for the conduct of its personnel." Askar noted that it was a Ramsey County deputy sheriff who had mobilized fellow task members that day to apprehend Smith.

But Ramsey and Hennepin counties denied in court filings that the officers involved were acting as county employees at the time of the incident. The U.S. government also successfully argued that the task force officers were acting as federal employees when attempting to arrest Smith.

"What you see from the opinion is courts ... have sort of just defaulted to this opinion where anytime a local officer is working in tandem with a federal officer ... we treat these guys like federal officers and that means it's very hard — bordering on impossible — to hold them accountable," said Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney at the National Institute for Justice who reviewed the ruling.

Because the officers were considered federal employees, the U.S. government also successfully made the case that Askar should have waited to sue until an administrative claim she filed with the Marshals was either denied or six months had passed with no response. Askar had maintained that because the officers were acting as agents of Ramsey and Hennepin counties, that procedure wasn't required.

Judge Doty sided with the defendants, dismissing Askar's case against the counties but allowing her to sue again with new claims against the federal government. Askar can now refile the case, asserting what are known as Bivens claims against federal agents for constitutional violations — a type of case that is harder to win than one against state officers.

Her attorney, Racey Rodne, declined to discuss the suit.

"At least in theory it should be possible to secure constitutional tort claims against state and federal officials in one of these joint task force situations because the Constitution acts as binding law for both officials," said Jim Pfander, a law professor at Northwestern University who reviewed the ruling. "The problem is when the federal government is involved as it was in this case, the challenges of securing redress just grow exponentially."