• IRLI Staff

Estrada v. Rhode Island

IRLI submitted a friend-of-the -court brief on behalf of the National Fraternal Order of Police (“the world’s largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers, representing more than 325,000 members”) in a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of several illegal aliens detained during a traffic stop. The aliens alleged an illegal search and seizure in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and as well as Article I, § 6 of the Rhode Island Constitution; plus unlawful discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 and state antidiscrimination law.

In the case, a state police trooper stopped the van on I-95 for failing to signal when changing lanes. The trooper asked the driver to produce his driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Responding to the trooper’s question, the driver stated that he and the other passengers were driving to work at a jewelry factory in Westerly, Rhode Island. The trooper then asked the front seat passenger for identification, who responded that he had none on his person.

The trooper then opened the front passenger door and counted fifteen people Inside. Using the driver as a translator, the trooper asked the rest of the passengers to show identification. Some produced various documents, including a gym membership card, a RI DMV non-driver’s ID, and two provided matricula cards issued by the Guatemalan consulate. The trooper then asked the passengers to produce documentation establishing their citizenship or immigration status. None were able to do so. The trooper later testified that he normally requested identification from passengers in vehicles he stopped, and that more than 99 percent of those passengers were able to supply it. The driver and another passenger later testified that they had “essentially admitted” that all the passengers were in the U.S. illegally.

After the license and criminal background checks were complete, the trooper then contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and reported that he had pulled over a van transporting individuals whom he believed might be illegal immigrants. State troopers then escorted the van to the ICE Providence office, where all of the passengers were taken into custody. ICE confirmed that each passenger was an unlawfully present alien and initiated removal proceedings against all of them.

On December 30, 2008, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all counts. On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the panel noted that the district court had found that the trooper had reasonable suspicion to suspect immigration violations, to transport the aliens to ICE, to twice pat-down the driver, and “thus did not reach the issue of qualified immunity.” 594 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2010).

By the time that the trooper “demanded that Plaintiffs follow him to the ICE Providence office, two Plaintiffs had essentially admitted on their behalf and on the behalf of the rest of the passengers, that they were in the country illegally.” Given these “undisputed facts”, the First Circuit was “compelled to find that a reasonable defendant in Officer Chabot’s position would have believed he had sufficient evidence giving rise to probable cause to support the conclusion that the van’s occupants had committed immigration violations. Officer Chabot is thus entitled to qualified immunity for alleged violations of state or federal laws surrounding the seizure of Plaintiffs and their subsequent escort to the Providence ICE office.” Id. The First Circuit also affirmed summary judgment for all the other counts on the same qualified immunity grounds. Id.

IRLI raised arguments that were addressed in a concurrence authored by Justice Lynch. Citing Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93, 101, 105 (2005), IRLI argued that (1) asking a driver or passenger unrelated questions during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of vehicle occupants, (2) questioning as to immigration status during a lawful stop does not require independent reasonable suspicion, (3) illegal aliens have no expectation of privacy in their immigration status, (4) reasonable suspicion did exist to “shift the focus” of the stop from a traffic violation to violations of federal immigration law, and (5) state and local police officers have inherent authority to enforce federal immigration law.

Judge Lynch wrote that the trooper “had more information at his disposal than merely the Hispanic appearance of the passengers and their inability to speak English. He knew from the driver that all plaintiffs were on their way to work. He also knew that when asked for some form of identification, most plaintiffs produced none, two offered Guatemalan consular identification cards, and one a Sports Fitness club I.D. card with no date on it. None of the passengers produced proof of United States citizenship when asked, nor did anyone produce a green card.” Id. at 68-69.

These factors, Judge Lynch explained, “raised the real prospect that there were violations of criminal law by the driver, 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii), possibly by the employer, id. § 1324(a)(3)(A), and by the van’s passengers,id. §§ 1304(e), 1306(a). Employers are required to review documents from the individuals they employ. Id. § 1324a(b)(1)(A)-(D). These materials include both employment authorization and identity documentation, id., such as a resident alien card or an alien registration card, id. § 1324a(b)(1)(B)(ii). Accordingly, if the passengers were employed as they said, they likely would have had, at a minimum, some form of identity documents. If they were not American citizens, a reasonable officer had grounds to believe they were violating the requirement to carry their registration, id. § 1304(e), or lacked registration because they had entered illegally, id., § 1306(a). Either situation was a violation of law. Thus, there was a reasonable basis for the officer to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).” Id. at 69.

A reasonable officer, Lynch concluded, “would believe this evidence was sufficient to merit extending the period of detention for the next one-to-two hours to accompany the van to the ICE office, whether the passengers consented or not. Indeed, federal law gives the authority to arrest for violations of § 1324 to all ‘officers whose duty it is to enforce criminal laws.’ Id. § 1324(c).” Id.

IRLI is a supporting organization of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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