HOUSTON, Aug. 8 LAWFUEL – Law News Network — In a case of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for Fifth Circuit ruled Monday in favor of Susman Godfrey client Maria Antonieta Martinez-Aguero, holding that, under the Fourth Amendment, “aliens stopped at the border have a constitutional right to be free from false imprisonment and the use of excessive force by law enforcement personnel.”
The decision, Martinez-Aguero v. Gonzalez,
authored by Judge Jerry E. Smith, is the first federal Court of Appeals
decision expressly to address the question of whether a 1990 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, prohibits non-resident aliens at a U.S. port of entry from asserting rights under the U.S. Constitution when they allege they have been treated inhumanely by law enforcement personnel.
Ms. Martinez-Aguero is a forty-nine-year-old Mexican national who
visited the United States once a month to accompany her aunt to the El Paso Social Security Office. She used to enter the United States with a
federally issued border-crossing card, which expired when the INS decided
to issue biometric, machine-readable cards. According to her complaint,
when she and her aunt attempted to enter the U.S. at the El Paso border on October 4, 2001, she was stopped by Officer Humberto Gonzales on the U.S. side of the international bridge but before she had cleared the port of entry. Officer Gonzalez told Ms. Martinez-Aguero and her aunt that their visas had expired, but when Ms. Martinez-Aguero asked for more information, Officer Gonzalez became agitated and began using foul language. When she and her aunt began walking back toward Mexico, Ms. Martinez-Aguero contends that Officer Gonzalez grabbed her arms, twisted them behind her back,
pushed her into a concrete barrier, which hit her stomach, and then started kicking her with his knees in her lower back. Ms. Martinez-Aguero was taken
into an office and handcuffed to a chair.
Ms. Martinez-Aguero sued Officer Gonzalez for false arrest under the
Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Officer Gonzalez
responded by claiming immunity to Ms. Martinez-Aguero’s lawsuit because, he
argued, under United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, she has no ability to
assert any constitutional rights because she is a non-resident and a
Mexican national. Judge Kathleen Cardone of the federal district court in
El Paso disagreed with Officer Gonzalez, so he appealed that ruling to the Fifth Circuit.
At that point, Susman Godfrey attorneys Jonathan Bridges and Suyash
Agrawal joined Ms. Martinez-Aguero’s litigation team as lead appellate
counsel. The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit reviews appeals from federal
courts in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana and has the largest docket of
immigration cases of any federal appellate court in the nation. In 2005,
over half of all immigration-related appeals filed in the United States
went to the Fifth Circuit. See
http://www.uscourts.gov/caseload2005/tables/B07mar05.pdf . Messrs. Bridges
and Agrawal, who both previously served as law clerks to judges on the
Fifth Circuit, argued that Officer Gonzalez cannot escape liability for his
conduct simply because of Ms. Martinez-Aguero’s immigration status.
Instead, they argued that the Constitution protects all noncitizens
whenever they are present on American soil.
The Fifth Circuit agreed that
the Constitution protects Ms. Martinez-Aguero and others like her who
regularly present themselves for admission at the border. Noting that there
are “no identifiable national interests that justify the wanton infliction
of pain,” the Court concluded that Ms. Martinez-Aguero’s Fourth Amendment
rights “surely must extend to the right to be free of entirely meritless
arrests and the excessive use of force.” The Court further ruled that “no
reasonable officer would believe it proper to beat a defenseless alien
without provocation, as Martinez-Aguero alleges.”
The decision has momentous implications for protecting the rights of
immigrants at the border and shielding them from abusive, improper police
conduct. One of the judges hearing the appeal had noted at oral argument
that Officer Gonzalez’s position, if adopted, would make aliens at the
border “fair game” for abusive law enforcement practices. On the contrary,
the court’s decision yesterday holds law enforcement officers personally
accountable for their misconduct.
“It is a wonderful victory on so many fronts,” noted Lynn Coyle, one of
Ms. Martinez-Aguero’s trial counsel and Susman Godfrey’s co-counsel on
appeal. “It is rare when a court decision will have a meaningful effect on
the conduct of law enforcement officers. This is one of those decisions.”
Javier Maldonado of the Texas Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under
Law, which monitors developments in this area, agreed.
The decision of the Fifth Circuit can be read at
http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/05/05-50472-CV0.wpd.pdf , and the
brief for Martinez-Aguero can be read at
Questions about this matter may be directed either to:
Susman Godfrey L.L.P.
Email [email protected]
Susman Godfrey L.L.P.
Email [email protected]