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Justices overturn immigrant verdict

But court sidesteps constitutional issue

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Paul G. Cassell

Paul G. Cassell

A Utah judge's controversial decision that undocumented immigrants are not entitled to constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures was diluted, but not directly overturned, in a Thursday appeals court decision.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals avoided a ruling on the issue, resolving the case of Jorge Esparza-Mendoza on much narrower legal grounds and opting not to address the broader constitutional question first raised by U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell last year.

In his May 2003 ruling, Cassell determined that Esparza-Mendoza, a Mexican national previously deported from the United States, was illegally detained by police in October 2002. However, Cassell also found that the violation was inconsequential because Esparza-Mendoza was not entitled to Fourth Amendment protections.

A three-judge panel on Thursday overturned Cassell's ruling that the detention was illegal, declining to address the second part of the judge's ruling.

"We conclude that Esparza-Mendoza's encounter with police was consensual and thus did not implicate the Fourth Amendment," the unanimous opinion states. "Therefore we affirm without having the opportunity to decide whether we agree with the district court's comprehensive analysis of who are 'the people' protected by the Fourth Amendment."

Still, critics of Cassell's opinion expressed pleasure Thursday with the appeals court action, noting that its conclusion implicitly strikes down the unprecedented decision.

"If there was any doubt about whether Fourth Amendment rights existed, the 10th Circuit would have mentioned that," said Cecillia Wang of the ACLU's Immigration Rights' Project, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to overturn Cassell's ruling.

"Here they say clearly that Mr. Esparza-Mendoza's rights were not violated, so necessarily he has Fourth Amendment rights."

Cassell was the first judge in the nation to rule that previously deported immigrants, to whom his ruling was limited, are not entitled to constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures on U.S. soil. A California judge issued a similar opinion in 1997 but reversed her decision the following year.

Five months after Cassell issued his opinion, his colleague, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart, contradicted the finding in a similar case. Stewart determined that a second previously deported alien, Mario Rubio-Cota, was entitled to Fourth Amendment protections.

"(Cassell's) opinion was unprecedented," Wang said. "It had no basis in previous decisions of the Supreme Court or the Constitution. And we're relieved and pleased that the 10th Circuit rejected his analysis."

Immigration activists such as former state legislator Matt Throckmorton, however, would have preferred a more thorough examination of the issue.

"The bottom line is they are not U.S. citizens," said Throckmorton, founder of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement. "We have created a big gray area in talking about illegal immigrants. . . . I would really like for them to come out and say, 'Here is citizenship, here's what's associated with it.' "

By side-stepping the issue, he said, "we continue to blur the line of what citizenship is."

The Fourth Amendment issue aside, defense attorney Benjamin Hamilton said Thursday the 10th Circuit's decision is troubling because it expands the legal standard when determining the legality of police-citizen encounters. In this case, Esparza-Mendoza repeatedly declined to identify himself to a Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy, acquiescing only when the deputy said she "needed" his identification.

Such a demand, Hamilton said, causes a reasonable person to feel he has no chance to walk away, thus constituting an illegal detention.

"By ruling this way, the court has completely expanded, in what I believe to be an inappropriate manner, somebody's right to terminate a police-citizen encounter by specifically declining to cooperate," he said.

Esparza-Mendoza ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of illegal re-entry of a deported alien and was sentenced in September 2003 to 17 months in prison followed by immediate deportation.

Contributing: Deborah Bulkeley

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com