Court Finds Federal Immigration Officials and State of Rhode Island Violated the Constitution in Detaining US Citizen

January 24, 2017 4:15 pm

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A federal court has ruled that federal immigration officials and the state of Rhode Island violated the Constitution in detaining a U.S. citizen without probable cause while the federal government investigated her immigration status.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ada Morales, who was born in Guatemala and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1995. In 2009, when she was arrested by Rhode Island authorities for an unrelated state charge, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued an immigration hold against her. A judge had ordered her release, but the state Department of Corrections held her for an additional 24 hours solely because of the ICE detainer, and even after she repeatedly told officials she was a U.S. citizen and offered to show them her naturalization certificate and passport.

The detention, the ACLU lawsuit charged, violated her constitutional rights to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. In a strongly worded opinion issued today, U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell Jr. agreed, writing that Morales’ “illegal detention revealed a dysfunction of constitutional proportion at both the state and federal levels and a unilateral refusal to take responsibility for the fact that a United States citizen lost her liberty due to a baseless immigration detainer through no fault of her own.” The judge also said the facts surrounding Morales’ unlawful detention “are disturbing on many levels” and “should concern all Americans.”

“Today’s decision is the latest in a series of court decisions from across the country underscoring the serious legal and constitutional flaws in the use of immigration detainers, reinforcing that states and localities should avoid getting mixed up in the federal government’s unlawful immigration practices,” said Cody Wofsy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said, “As a new presidential administration considers implementing mass deportations, this court ruling is an important reminder of the dangers to liberty that all of us face from overzealous government agencies. We are hopeful that today’s decision sends a strong message about the importance of the courts in safeguarding the rights of all.”

“We are honored to represent Ms. Morales and work with the ACLU on this important matter, and are grateful that the court recognized just how painful and unjust this detention was for Ms. Morales and her family,” said Mark Ford, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, pro bono counsel in this case.

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