Monday, December 28, 2009

Court: Mass criminal immigration hearings unlawful

By ALICIA A. CALDWELL (AP) – Dec 2, 2009

EL PASO, Texas — Immigrants who have been arrested in zero-tolerance zones along the Mexican border must not be tried at mass criminal immigration hearings because the proceedings violate federal rules, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A three-judge panel with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that a federal court in Tucson, Ariz. — where mass hearings have been held for defendants arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents — had violated Rule 11, which requires that each defendant be read their rights and be given an explanation of what a guilty plea means.

Any immigrants found in zero-tolerance zones established along the Mexican border under Operation Streamline can be arrested and prosecuted in a federal court on charges of illegal entry.

The program was initially credited with curbing illegal border crossings, but critics have long argued that immigrants are pushed through the system without being given a chance to fairly defend themselves or understanding the proceedings.

Most immigrants scooped up under those circumstances answer "yes" en masse when asked if they understand their rights and the consequences of pleading guilty, according to the ruling posted on the court's Web site. Most are not individually questioned by the judge, it said.

In a 19-page ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, said the mass hearings were understandable, given the number of immigration cases.

"Abstractly considered, the shortcut is not only understandable but reasonable," Noonan wrote in the ruling. "The shortcut, however, does not comply with Rule 11. We cannot permit this rule to be disregarded in the name of efficiency nor to be violated because it is too demanding for a district court to observe."

Jason Hannan, Tucson's assistant federal public defender who argued the case, did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment.

Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke, whose Tucson office handled the appealed cases, said some procedures would be changed as a result of the Appeals Court decision.

"While changes will have to be made to some change-of-plea proceedings to comply with the Ninth Circuit's decision, we are confident that the decision will not adversely impact our ability to prosecute individuals who violate the laws of the United States," Burke said in a written statement.

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