Court: Local Police Can’t Arrest Woman For Being Undocumented Without Federal Authority

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Laurent Taillefer, Andrea BegayA Salvadoran woman who was arrested for being undocumented will soon be able to proceed with her discrimination lawsuit, according to a court decision on Wednesday. A federal appeals court found that Frederick County Sheriff deputies violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against an “unreasonable search and seizure” when they held her to investigate her immigration status.

Roxana Orellana Santos was eating a sandwich in a public area outside of her workplace in 2008 when two police officers approached her to question her legal status. After running her identification card through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database, the police officers found out that Santos was undocumented and had a civil warrant for immediate deportation. The warrant alone did not provide a basis for her detention or arrest, but she was arrested and held in jail for 46 days. Neither one of the deputies who arrested her were trained to enforce immigration laws.

Immigrant advocates filed a lawsuit on her behalf, arguing that the arrest was based on racial profiling and violated her Fourth Amendment right. One of the advocates, Jose Perez said, “Since there was never any suggestion of criminal activity by Ms. Orellana Santos, her questioning and detention were clearly based on one element: her ethnic appearance…This is the essence of racial profiling.”

A lower court ruled last year dismissed the lawsuit, finding that her detention did not violate the Fourth Amendment. But the federal appeals court opinion on Wednesday overturned the lower court’s ruling. The federal appeals court said in its written opinion, “We hold that, absent express direction or authorization by federal officials, state and local law enforcement officers may not detain or arrest an individual solely based on known or suspected civil violations of federal immigration law.”

The advocates argue that Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins has an anti-immigrant agenda, one in which he encouraged racial profiling. Jenkins’ department became the only law enforcement agency in Maryland to partake in a federal program in which local authorities can help to detain and turn over immigrants to immigration officials. As a result, hundreds of people from his jurisdiction were deported.

Santos still faces a tough road ahead — several officials are still insisting that they are immune from the lawsuit. But the appeals court’s finding that officials violated the Fourth Amendment is nonetheless significant, because the U.S. Supreme Court did not entirely resolve this question in its 2012 ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070.

The U.S. Supreme Court left in place Arizona’s “show me your papers” provision allowing cops to ask for documentation. But it cautioned that police cannot stop an individual solely to verify their immigration status.

The federal appeals court ruling upholding Santos’ lawsuit is just the latest in a string of victories for undocumented immigrants who are effectively criminalized for being in the United States. Just within the past month, federal decisions have been handed down in Texas, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.