RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - Attorneys for an undocumented immigrant who was arrested and detained by ICE after a routine traffic stop in Maryland asked the Fourth Circuit on Thursday to declare his arrest unlawful and toss the resulting order that he be deported.
As recounted at Thursday's hearing, Juventino Davila was pulled over in May 2009 for speeding while driving a car owned by his friend, Jairo Fernio-Sanchez.
Maryland Metropolitan Transportation police office Peter Acker later said that while questioning Davila, he noticed the man was nervous and after questioning, the driver revealed both that the car didn't belong to him and that he was in the country illegally.
After Fernio-Sanchez was called to the scene, ostensibly to take his friend home, he too was question and also revealed he is an undocumented alien.
Sanchez claimed in his immigration appeal that the officer aggressively asked about his immigration status, something a state police officer lacks the legal right to do unless there’s suspicion of a crime. While the cop believed the car was stolen, Sanchez was able to prove ownership and from that moment, he believes, questions about his immigration status, and his detainment by ICE and deportation order that followed, violate his rights.
Acker, who, according to court documents, has years of experience in Maryland’s police force, said his initial thoughts about the stolen car lead to further suspicions when Sanchez arrived.
He said he asked about their immigration status to quell fears that they could have been hiding “a weapon in the car or a kilo of cocaine.” He then pressed all passengers to admit to being “legal or illegal.” They stayed silent until Sanchez spoke up and admitted he was undocumented, the government's brief says.
Sanchez’s lawyers argued that request for immigration status, and his eventual detainment, violated his Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendment rights because the officer lacked “reasonable suspicion of either criminal activity or a civil immigration violation.”
“The only thing the cop knew was [Sanchez] was Latino and that he was with Latinos,” said Barry Dalin, a University of Maryland School of Law student who is acting as the detained man's attorney.
But Kohsei Ugumori, senior litigation counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Division, said Sanchez’s association with someone who admitted they were undocumented, as well as the officer’s fear of drugs or weapons, were enough to ask about his immigration status or at least detain him until ICE arrived on the scene.
Ugumori said the officer knew he didn’t have the right to enforce federal immigration laws, but once Sanchez admitted his immigration status, it was lawful for to detain him until ICE arrived, Ugumori said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz, an Obama appointee and the first Hispanic judge to serve on the Fourth Circuit, asked if Acker would have questioned Sanchez about immigration status if he had fair skin.
"What if he was from Norway?” Diaz asked, alluding to President Trump’s recent assertion that's he'd welcome immigrants from the wealthy Scandinavian nation.
Diaz's question inspired roars of laughter from the courtroom.
Ugumori said Acker had worked at the Port of Baltimore and BWI Airport were these were routine questions he’d ask of people of many races and skin colors.
U.S. Circuit Judge Diana Motz, a Clinton appointee, asked about the roadside detention Sanchez experienced. If state police officers can’t enforce federal immigration laws, how was his being held until federal officers not an illegal detention, she asked.
“We have a person who admitted to being here illegally, the officer detained him,” Ugumori said. “It is not an egregious violation [of the Fourth Amendment].”
Thursday’s hearing carries extra weight considering the ongoing debate about the roll police officers have in enforcing immigration laws. The Fourth Circuit has a history of sympathizing with immigrants who were detained by state police, but President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have both looked for ways to punish so called “sanctuary cities” which have policies keeping officers from reporting undocumented people to federal authorities.
Officials in cities that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities argue it allows police to build more trust in immigrant communities. Sessions, Trump and other opponents of the policy maintain it creates safe havens for criminals and gangs.
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