L.A. Judge OKs Cops' not Asking Crime Victims, Witnesses About Immigration Status

Human Rights

A Los Angeles judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn a 30-year-old policy that prohibits Los Angeles Police Department officers from asking people about their immigration status.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu threw out the lawsuit filed by an L.A. resident by granting a motion from the city of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberty Union. He ruled that the Los Angeles Police Department's current policy is constitutional and doesn't hinder the local police's ability to exchange information with federal immigration officials.

"Every police chief since Chief (Daryl) Gates has supported Special Order 40," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in response to the judge's ruling. "They do because it makes sense. We want people to come forward, to be able when they're witnesses or victims of crimes to cooperate with the police department."

Los Angeles resident Harold Sturgeon had filed suit against police Chief William J. Bratton and members of the Police Commission in 2006 in an effort to overturn Special Order 40.

In court papers, Sturgeon's lawyers called Special Order 40 "essentially a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy regarding illegal aliens," asking the court to order a permanent injunction against the police department to prevent taxpayer's money from being used to enforce the policy.

They argued that the current LAPD policy restricts officers from sharing information with federal immigration officials, a claim the city attorney's office denies.

Judge Treu acknowledged the heated debate over illegal immigration issues, but ruled against the plaintiff's assertion that labeled the policy as a waste of tax payers' money.

ACLU attorney Hector O. Villagra praised the judge's ruling, saying that it would encourage people to continue to come forward and report crimes regardless of their immigration status.

"For 30 years the police department has struck a proper balance between public safety and federal immigration law,'" Villagra said.

Treu had granted the ACLU permission to intervene as a defendant in the case, allowing the organization to work together with the city attorney's office to defend the legality of Special Order 40.

Sturgeon's lawyer, Paul J. Orfanedes of Judicial Watch Inc., expressed disappointment with the verdict and said an appeal would likely follow, depending on Sturgeon's wishes.

"Special Order puts a gag on police officers on duty to ask information and to share information," Orfanedes said.

Special Order 40, voluntarily instituted in 1979, was a practical decision by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates, one of the toughest-on-crime chiefs in the department's history.

Facing a surge of violent crimes in Los Angeles' immigrant communities that often went unreported, the department began to implement the policy to assist police investigations by encouraging undocumented immigrants who were leading productive lives to report the crimes to the police and approach them as witnesses.

To ensure that undocumented immigrants would not have to fear deportation when they came forward as witnesses, the LAPD decided that it no longer would investigate people solely to establish their immigration status and would not arrest anyone simply for being in the country illegally. But this didn't stop officers from arresting a violent suspect or calling in federal agents to investigate a person they believed had illegally reentered the United States after deportation.

In addition to Los Angeles, other major cities like Chicago, Denver, Houston, Miami and New York have either written or informal policies that prohibit their law enforcement officers from asking a suspect or a witness about his or her immigration status.

This three decades-old policy that many consider a "sanctuary" policy has become the subject of heated debate over illegal immigration as opponents who want to see the deportation of undocumented immigrants and tougher immigration laws started demanding local law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities.

Several months ago, when a black teenager was murdered on the sidewalk near his home by a 19-year-old, a member of the feared 18th Street Gang and an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, the demand intensified.

After losing their son, the parents of the slain17-year-old football standout Jamiel Shaw Jr. implored the Los Angeles City Council to modify Special Order 40 in order to allow local police officers to proactively and routinely check the immigration status of gang members and work more closely with federal immigration authorities.

Three days after their plea, Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD officer, introduced a motion that would permit officers to inquire about the immigration status of a known gang member, even if the suspect has committed no crime, and to make an arrest if the suspect turned out to be undocumented.

Officers agreed that they should be able to track the immigration status of gang members. Deported gang members often return to the United States but until they catch them in an illegal act, officers are not allowed to check their immigration status, and the gang members are allowed to remain on the street. Some officers, however, were under the mistaken impression that they weren't allowed to call ICE even when they saw someone who they knew had been deported and returned to the country illegally.

As a result of these misconceptions, the LAPD is in the process of clarifying guidelines for its officers to comply with the order.

Yet according to city officials, police departments like Los Angeles's already have been sharing street intelligence on gang members with federal authorities.

The City Attorney's Office maintained in court documents that the directive does not prevent the LAPD from working closely with federal ICE officials.

"There is no evidence ... to show that ICE has ever complained that they have not had the assistance of LAPD, or that LAPD has not come when they are called,'' the city's court papers state.

Information from City News Service was used in this report.

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