Constitution’s protection against unreasonable
search and seizure applies to all immigrants
in the U.S., ACLU Argues
SALT LAKE CITY, January 6, 2004 — The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the filing of a brief urging the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse an unprecedented lower court ruling that threatens to strip many immigrants of their right to be free from unconstitutional searches and seizures that violate the Fourth Amendment.
In a case involving a criminal prosecution for illegal reentry into the country, the Utah Federal Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches or seizures by law enforcement officers does not apply to “previously deported alien felons.”
“There has been long-standing recognition by law enforcement and the courts that aliens are protected by this country’s constitutional rights when they are here in the United States,” said Dani Eyer, Executive Director of the ACLU of Utah, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case together with the ACLU Immigrants’ Right Project, the National Association of Federal Defenders and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Jorge Esparza-Mendoza, the defendant in the case, was prosecuted in 2002 for illegally re-entering the United States. He was questioned and detained by Salt Lake County Sheriff’s officers when his parked car was damaged in an altercation and he declined to make a claim for the damage or show identification to the sheriffs investigating the matter.
The district court ruled that his detention by the Sheriff’s officers was an illegal seizure under the established standards of the Fourth Amendment. However, the court then ruled that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to Esparza-Mendoza or any other immigrant like him on the ground that all such immigrants lack “sufficient connections to the national community.”
In its brief filed on December 24, 2003, the ACLU argued that the district court ruling is unprecedented, lacks any support in the history of the Constitution, is contrary to Supreme Court precedent and would undermine the Fourth Amendment’s protection for everyone in the United States, citizens and immigrants alike.
“The district court decision would constitute a radical departure from precedent and would undermine the core protections of the Fourth Amendment,” said Cecillia Wang, an ACLU cooperating counsel and the principal author of the ACLU’s brief.
“Our brief demonstrates that the framers of the Constitution intended the Fourth Amendment to protect everyone in the United States and that the district court decision misunderstood the Amendment’s historical roots,” she added. “The court also mistakenly relied on inapplicable language in a Supreme Court decision that concerned only searches outside the United States, which is entirely different both constitutionally and practically. This district court stands alone among all the federal courts in making this erroneous ruling.”
Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project, who is one of the lawyers on the ACLU’s brief, added, “As other courts have recognized, the Fourth Amendment applies universally when the police arrest someone in this country. Any other rule would undermine the constitutional protections for citizens and immigrants alike by inviting police to make snap judgments about a person’s immigration status based on appearance, ethnicity or race.”