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U.S. v. Esparza-Mendoza (2004)

13 October 2004 Published in Resolved Cases

Unreasonable Search and Seizure and Police Practices - In May 2003, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell ruled that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches or seizures by law enforcement officers did not apply to undocumented immigrants who have previously been deported because of a felony charge. This unprecedented ruling was based on a case involving Jorge Esparza-Mendoza, a Mexican national who was prosecuted in 2002 for illegally reentering the United States.

Law enforcement learned of Esparza-Mendoza’s immigration status after he was detained and questioned 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 deputies investigating the matter. The Utah Federal Court held that Esparza-Mendoza’s detention was an illegal seizure but that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to him or any other “previously-removed alien felons.”

In December 2003, the ACLU of Utah, along with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the National Association of Federal Defenders, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Judge Cassell’s ruling. The brief argued that the Utah Federal Court “stands alone among the federal courts that have confronted this issue,” and that its “analysis is unsupported by precedent, history or constitutional text.” The brief also argued that the ruling undermined the constitutional protections for citizens and immigrants alike because it invited law enforcement officers to make snap judgments about a person’s immigration status based on ethnicity, race, or ability to speak English.

In a ruling issued October 14, 2004, the Tenth Circuit rejected Judge Cassell’s decision that the detention was an illegal seizure, and concluded instead that “Esparza-Mendoza’s encounter with the police was consensual and thus did not implicate the Fourth Amendment.” By stating that law enforcement did not violate Esparza-Mendoza’s Fourth Amendment rights, the Tenth Circuit implied that he does indeed have those rights; and, while the outcome is the same for Esparza-Mendoza, it is significant that the Tenth Circuit did not affirm Judge Cassell’s unprecedented reasoning for achieving that outcome.