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Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment, Denies Qualified Immunity to Montana Sheriff’s Deputy and Judge Who Arrested Immigrant

August 11, 2020

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Matt Adams
Legal Director



Seattle, WA – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a precedent-setting decision ruling that a sheriff’s deputy and a justice of the peace in Billings, Montana, violated the Fourth Amendment when they arrested Miguel Reynaga-Hernandez based on a suspected immigration violation. Mr. Reynaga was arrested on October 2, 2017, at the courthouse in Billings, Montana, where he accompanied his wife who was seeking an order of protection in the state court. Justice Pedro Hernandez called the sheriff’s office when he came to suspect that Mr. Reynaga was unlawfully present in the United States. Mr. Reynaga was arrested and ultimately transferred to the detention center in Tacoma, Washington. The removal (deportation) proceedings against him were subsequently dismissed and he then filed a civil rights action against the Deputy Sheriff and Justice of the Peace for unlawfully arresting him. Mr. Reynaga, is represented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and the Border Crossing Law Firm, P.C.


Writing for a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals, Judge Richard Paez ruled that both Deputy Sheriff Derrek Skinner and Justice Pedro Hernandez violated the law, reaffirming that even if Mr. Reynaga did not have lawful immigration status, that there was no basis to conclude that he had committed a crime. Judge Paez explained that at the time Deputy Skinner stopped Mr. Reynaga, “the only relevant information available to Skinner was Hernandez’s statement that he had heard sworn testimony that Reynaga was ‘not a legal citizen.’” That information was not enough to stop and question Mr. Reynaga, because Deputy Skinner suspected only that Mr. Reynaga was unlawfully present in the United States, which is only a “civil violation.” The appeals court then went on to observe that local law enforcement officers like Deputy Skinner must suspect someone has committed a crime, not simply violated an immigration law. Significantly, the Ninth Circuit also ruled that Justice Hernandez also violated Mr. Reynaga’s rights because he was “an integral participant in the violation of Reynaga’s constitutional rights.”


In denying the defendants’ claim for qualified immunity, a legal doctrine protecting law enforcement officers who violate the law as long as the law was not clearly established, the panel ruled that Deputy Skinner and Justice Hernandez violated legal principles that were clearly established going back to at least 2012.


The appeals court also reaffirmed that factors like an individual’s inability to speak English or Hispanic appearance cannot be a basis to suspect an individual of a criminal violation. As Judge Paez explained, “[a]n officer cannot rely only upon generalizations that ‘would cast suspicion on large segments of the lawabiding population’” when detaining or arresting someone. As a result, the panel affirmed the district court’s decision concluding that Deputy Skinner and Justice Hernandez clearly violated Mr. Reynaga’s constitutional rights and that they should be held liable for their actions.


“This decision is important as it makes clear that state and local law enforcement officers may be held liable under the civil rights statute if they unlawfully detain community members in order to turn them over to immigration enforcement,” said Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP. “Police officers—and even local judicial officials—may be held accountable when, instead of serving the community, they take it upon themselves to stop people based on their suspected immigration status, the language they speak, or their ethnicity or the color of their skin.”


“The harm that [Judge Hernandez and Deputy Skinner] did to me is hard to explain,” said Mr. Reynaga in reacting to the court of appeals decision. “It’s something that lives in me and in my family now. It’s hard to describe what this harm represents to a person. But I’m very grateful for the work NWIRP has done for me. I’m very happy and proud that now immigrants here in Montana and in other states can know that we also have rights.”


Following the court of appeals decision, Mr. Reynaga’s case will return to the district court for further proceedings on the damages he is entitled to in light of the violation of his constitutional rights.


The Ninth Circuit decision can be found here.