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Trooper Can’t Be Sued for Questioning Immigrants

(CN) - A Rhode Island trooper who pulled over a van of workers had probable cause to ask the driver and passengers about their immigration status and then turn them over to immigration authorities, the 1st Circuit ruled.

In July 2006, trooper Thomas Chabot pulled the van over for failing to signal when changing lanes. Chabot asked the driver and passengers for identification and proof of U.S. citizenship. When they failed to produce any IDs, he escorted them to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Providence, R.I.

The driver and 11 passengers sued, claiming Chabot violated their constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Chabot and the Rhode Island State Police moved to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity.

The federal appeals court in Boston upheld a lower court's ruling for Chabot, saying he had reason to question the group's immigration status. His inquiries amounted to "mere police questioning," Judge Juan Torruella ruled.

The three-judge panel added that Chabot's two pat-down searches of the van's driver were reasonable due to the safety concerns presented by the large group of unidentified people.

Also, Chabot's request that the van's driver follow him to the customs office was not unreasonable, the court ruled, because at least two passengers had admitted that they were in the country illegally.

"Because we find that Officer Chabot could reasonably have believed that he had sufficient facts to warrant first reasonable suspicion, and later, probable cause of immigration violations, we find that he is entitled to qualified immunity for all of the challenged actions," Torruella concluded.

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