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NWIRP, May 29, 2019
"Earlier today, a federal court in Montana ruled that a sheriff’s deputy anda justice of the peace in Billings, Montana, violated the Fourth Amendment when theyarrested Miguel Reynaga at a state courthouse in Billings, Montana based onallegations that he did not have lawful immigration status. Mr. Reynaga, who isrepresented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and the BorderCrossing Law Firm, P.C., brought the civil rights action against Defendants DeputyDerrek Skinner and Justice Pedro Hernandez.
U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters held that Deputy Skinner and Justice Hernandezdid not have any lawful reason to arrest Mr. Reynaga. Mr. Reynaga was present at thecourthouse to serve as a witness in support of his wife, who was seeking a protectionorder against a third party. During his wife’s hearing, the opposing party alleged that Mr.Reynaga was unlawfully present in the United States, prompting Justice Hernandez tocall the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office to request that Mr. Reynaga be “picked up.”Deputy Skinner arrived and arrested Mr. Reynaga after Justice Hernandez informedDeputy Skinner that there were “illegals” outside his courtroom that he wanted thedeputy to investigate.
Judge Watters ruled that the arrest that followed was clearly prohibited by theConstitution, remarking that “[i]n a country as diverse as the United States, it is commonto encounter someone who struggles with English. The Fourth Amendment would be oflittle value if the police were able to arrest anyone with a foreign ID and difficulty withEnglish.” Judge Watters’ ruling finds that Defendants failed to abide by the law whichmakes clear that the fact someone does not have legal immigration status does notmean they have committed a crime.
Judge Watters found that Justice Hernandez, despite being a judge, was liable for thearrest because he was an “integral participant” in violating Mr. Reynaga’s rights. Theopinion notes that not only did he call the Sheriff’s Office because he “wanted thempicked up” but that “to ensure Miguel would be caught by surprise, Justice Hernandezordered Miguel’s wife to remain in the courtroom so she couldn’t tell Miguel a deputywas coming for him.”
“Today’s decision reaffirms that state and local law enforcement officials are notauthorized to enforce civil federal immigration law,” said Matt Adams, legal director forNWIRP. “It would be no more appropriate for local officials to arrest someone in order toinvestigate their federal tax returns.”
Shahid Haque of the Border Crossing Law Firm similarly remarked, “We hope that thisdecision clarifies to local Montana authorities that immigration status violations are not acriminal offense, and that they have no authority to arrest someone based on asuspected immigration violation.”