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Morales v. Chadbourne

Last Update: January 24, 2017

What's at Stake

Ada Morales is a naturalized U.S. citizen who has been erroneously detained by Rhode Island law enforcement officials on immigration detainers not once, but twice—first in July 2004, and again in May 2009. Her lawsuit arises out of her 2009 imprisonment.

Morales was born in Guatemala and became a United States citizen in 1995. In May 2009, she was arrested on state charges by Rhode Island police and, while she was being held in state custody, ICE lodged a detainer against her. Even though a judge ordered Ms. Morales released shortly after her arrest, Rhode Island officials continued to hold her in custody for an additional 24 hours because of the ICE detainer. Morales told the Rhode Island officials that she was a U.S. citizen and offered to show them her naturalization certificate and passport, but no one would listen. She was only released after ICE agents took her into federal custody, transported her to their office, and interviewed her. Upon releasing her, one ICE agent apologized for her wrongful detention, but acknowledged that it could happen again in the future. In fact, Morales had been unlawfully detained in virtually identical circumstances once before, in 2004.

In April 2012, Morales filed a lawsuit against federal and state defendants, alleging violations of her Fourth Amendment and due process rights and her rights under state law. The district court issued a thorough decision permitting Morales's case to proceed. The court reaffirmed the basic Fourth Amendment rule that mere investigative interest – including investigation into one's immigration status – is not enough to justify warrantless imprisonment. It made clear, too, that ICE cannot subject someone to an immigration detainer simply because she was born abroad. As the court explained, "[t]o hold otherwise would mean that the approximately 17 million foreign-born United States citizens could automatically be subject to detention and deprivation of their liberty rights."

The court also recognized that immigration detainers are simply requests from the federal government, not orders, and that state and local officials can be held legally responsible if they choose to jail people on that basis without probably cause or due process, in violation of the Constitution.

Three of the individual ICE defendants filed an appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals, and in July 2015, the appellate court affirmed the district court's decision in full. In a unanimous decision, the First Circuit rejected ICE's contention that there was no clear evidentiary standard for ICE detainers in 2009, calling that argument an “unprecedented proposition … contradicted by longstanding Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.” Rather, the court held, it was “clearly established” in 2009 that the Fourth Amendment applied to ICE detainers, just as to other forms of immigration detention, and that probable cause was required to hold someone in jail on that basis. The First Circuit also allowed Ms. Morales's Fourth Amendment claim against the supervisory ICE officials to proceed. The case has now returned to the district court for further proceedings.

Morales is represented by the ACLU of Rhode Island, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP.

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