BOSTON (CN) - The federal government cannot use a "mandatory" immigration detention provision to indefinitely lock up undocumented immigrants for old criminal offenses, the en banc First Circuit ruled.
Applauding the decision from the Boston-based federal appeals court, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that it opens the door for more than 100 wrongly incarcerated immigrants to challenge their detentions in Massachusetts jails.
The case originated from two habeas petitions filed by Clayton Gordon and Leiticia Castaneda, whom immigration officials held without bond because of separate drug offenses they had committed in 2008.
Immigration officials detained Gordon and Casteneda five years after those infractions and denied them the opportunity to seek bail under mandatory-detention provisions designed to ensnare so-called "criminal aliens."
After federal judges in Massachusetts each ruled that Gordon and Castaneda had the right to a bond proceeding, the First Circuit consolidated their cases for review.
Before rehearing the case en banc, the First Circuit ruled 3-0 last year that Congress had not meant for the mandatory-detention law to apply to those like Gordon and Castaneda whose criminal offenses long predated their civil immigration detention.
An even 3-3 split likewise affirmed for the immigrants Wednesday.
Writing for the majority, Judge David Barron emphasized that bail hearings are especially important given the "reality that removal proceedings can stretch on for months or even years."
The 62-page opinion, joined by judges Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson and Juan Torruella, parses the language and legislative history of the mandatory-detention law to find that Congress intended it to be limited.
In a concurring opinion, however, Judge Torruella expressed his "discomfort" with the mandatory-detention statute codified at Section 1226(c) of Title 8.
"I am compelled to suggest that the indefinite detention without access to bond or bail of any person in the United States violates due process," Torruella wrote.
Torruella added: "Affirming the government's prerogative to incarcerate persons in defendants' situation without bail or bond hearing is not only to allow arbitrary and abusive government action but to condone acts that run contrary to the Constitution."
ACLU attorney Adriana Lafaille said the majority's ruling "comes at a wonderful time" because it keeps her client and others like him home for the holidays.
"It is wonderful to know that the Gordons and more than a hundred other New England families who have been reunited after the District Court's ruling in this case are spending the holidays together and can remain together as they continue to fight their immigration cases," Lafaille said in an email.
Castaneda's attorney Greg Romanovsky lauded what he called a "very significant" decision.
"It highlights the overarching concern the court has with the constitutionality of the mandatory detention scheme in general," Romanovsky said in an email. "These are difficult times for personal liberties, and it is refreshing to see a court of appeals take a stance against fear-mongering and protect the rule of law and individual's right to liberty."
Lead dissenting Judge William Kayatta defended the mandatory-detention provisions to keep certain immigrants from fleeing deportation proceedings.
"It seems to us that Congress could have - and did - reasonably regard this group of aliens as categorically posing a flight risk because their commission of the designated crimes makes it highly likely that they will be deported if ICE comes knocking," Kayatta wrote.
Judges Jeffrey Howard and Sandra Lynch joined that 41-page dissent.
The Department of Justice declined to comment.
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