SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal appeals court is seeing if it can decide an immigration case without addressing a Utah federal judge's contention that undocumented immigrants are not entitled to constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Defense attorney Ben Hamilton hoped to argue Tuesday before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell's May 2003 ruling runs contrary to "decades and decades" of jurisprudence and sets a dangerous precedence.
However, the three-judge panel, questioned whether it will even have to broach the issue in resolving the case of Jorge Esparza-Mendoza, the Deseret Morning News reported.
The judges interrupted Hamilton's argument almost immediately, asking him to focus on the original discovery that Esparza-Mendoza was in the United States illegally.
"Should we avoid the constitutional issue if we can look at the other issues first?" 10th Circuit Judge Stephanie K. Seymour asked.
Cassell ruled that Esparza-Mendoza, a Mexican national convicted of illegally re-entering the United States after an earlier deportation, was illegally detained by Salt Lake County sheriff's officers and therefore illegally identified. However, he said the violation did not matter because Esparza-Mendoza was not entitled to constitutional protections.
If the appeals court overturns Cassell's ruling on the detention, it does not need to address the constitutional issue.
That is what the Salt Lake federal prosecutors would like it to do.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lee said Tuesday that he had been directed by the Solicitor General's Office not to address the constitutional issue.
But to avoid the issue, Hamilton said, would raise a host of problems, especially in light of a September 2003 ruling from Cassell's colleague in Utah, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart.
Stewart ruled in the case of Mario Rubio-Cota, also an undocumented immigrant who had been previously deported and was charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office with re-entering the country, that illegal aliens do have a right against unreasonable searches and seizures while on U.S. soil.
"We have a split in the district of Utah between Judge Cassell and Judge Stewart on the same issue, the identical issue," Hamilton said.
The American Civil Liberties Union had asked to argue Tuesday on Esparza-Mendoza's behalf. The request was denied, although the group was earlier allowed to submit a friend-of-the-court brief on the issue.
The case began in 2002, when Esparza-Mendoza was questioned by sheriff's deputies about damage to his parked car and declined to make a damage claim. The deputies insisted on getting identification and arrested Esparza-Mendoza when a background check revealed he was an undocumented worker who had been removed from the country in 1999.
Cassell sentenced Esparza-Mendoza to 17 months in prison for of re-entry of a previously removed alien and ordered him turned over to immigration authorities at the end of the term for deportation proceedings.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)