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Court Rules Montana Sheriff’s Deputy and Judge Violated Rights of Immigrant by Unlawfully Arresting Him: Reynaga Hernandez v. Skinner

May 30, 2019 (2 min read)

NWIRP, May 29, 2019

"Earlier today, a federal court in Montana ruled that a sheriff’s deputy and
a justice of the peace in Billings, Montana, violated the Fourth Amendment when they
arrested Miguel Reynaga at a state courthouse in Billings, Montana based on
allegations that he did not have lawful immigration status. Mr. Reynaga, who is
represented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and the Border
Crossing Law Firm, P.C., brought the civil rights action against Defendants Deputy
Derrek Skinner and Justice Pedro Hernandez.

U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters held that Deputy Skinner and Justice Hernandez
did not have any lawful reason to arrest Mr. Reynaga. Mr. Reynaga was present at the
courthouse to serve as a witness in support of his wife, who was seeking a protection
order 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 to
call the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office to request that Mr. Reynaga be “picked up.”
Deputy Skinner arrived and arrested Mr. Reynaga after Justice Hernandez informed
Deputy Skinner that there were “illegals” outside his courtroom that he wanted the
deputy to investigate.

Judge Watters ruled that the arrest that followed was clearly prohibited by the
Constitution, remarking that “[i]n a country as diverse as the United States, it is common
to encounter someone who struggles with English. The Fourth Amendment would be of
little value if the police were able to arrest anyone with a foreign ID and difficulty with
English.” Judge Watters’ ruling finds that Defendants failed to abide by the law which
makes clear that the fact someone does not have legal immigration status does not
mean they have committed a crime.

Judge Watters found that Justice Hernandez, despite being a judge, was liable for the
arrest because he was an “integral participant” in violating Mr. Reynaga’s rights. The
opinion notes that not only did he call the Sheriff’s Office because he “wanted them
picked up” but that “to ensure Miguel would be caught by surprise, Justice Hernandez
ordered Miguel’s wife to remain in the courtroom so she couldn’t tell Miguel a deputy
was coming for him.”

“Today’s decision reaffirms that state and local law enforcement officials are not
authorized to enforce civil federal immigration law,” said Matt Adams, legal director for
NWIRP. “It would be no more appropriate for local officials to arrest someone in order to
investigate their federal tax returns.”

Shahid Haque of the Border Crossing Law Firm similarly remarked, “We hope that this
decision clarifies to local Montana authorities that immigration status violations are not a
criminal offense, and that they have no authority to arrest someone based on a
suspected immigration violation.”