Louisiana High Court Strikes Down Immigrant Driver Law

By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN | October 18, 2013

The Louisiana Supreme Court has struck down a state law that made it a crime for people who aren’t U.S. citizens to drive here without carrying proof of their immigration status.

The divided court ruled Tuesday that the state law is pre-empted by a federal law that imposes similar requirements but carries a lighter punishment. The federal law is a misdemeanor, while the state law is a felony punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year.

Two of the court’s seven justices wrote dissenting opinions.

The statute was part of a series of laws that the state Legislature passed in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the law’s critics say it hasn’t led to the arrest of any suspected terrorists.

“Hard-working individuals are being arrested for nothing other than driving a vehicle,” said Meredith Stewart, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The court ruled in the cases against three people who were charged in Lafayette Parish with violating the law, including Alexis Sarrabea, a 30-year-old from Honduras. Sarrabea spent more than three months in jail before reaching a plea deal last year.

A panel of judges from the state’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal later threw out Sarrabea’s conviction and sentence. However, a different panel from the same appeals court ruled in two separate cases that federal law doesn’t pre-empt the state statute.

In the state Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice John Weimer said the “legal landscape against which these competing decisions operated was substantively altered” last year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of an Arizona immigration law. Weimer said the ruling made it clear that states can’t criminalize “federal registration violations such as the failure to carry proof of alien registration.”

Chad Ikerd, an assistant public defender who represented Sarrabea, said his office defended up to 300 people who were charged with the crime.

“A lot of them have kids who are American citizens. Their parents were being taken away for three, four, up to six months,” he said.

But local law-enforcement officials seemed to stop enforcing the law after the 3rd Circuit overturned Sarrabea’s conviction in May, Ikerd added.

“The issue is not whether my clients should be punished for not having documents,” he said. “The question is whether the state of Louisiana can do it.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Jeffrey Victory said his colleagues in the majority misinterpreted the state statute and took an overly broad view of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. The state has the authority to police public roads and highways, he added.

“Regulations pertaining to the issuance of motor vehicle drivers’ licenses constitute an exercise of the police power to regulate the use of the highways in the interest of the public safety and welfare,” he wrote.

Justice Jefferson Hughes III also dissented, saying he didn’t see how the state law interferes with federal immigration law.

“Rather, I view it as a legitimate measure to protect the citizens of Louisiana, much the same as requiring drivers to carry liability insurance,” he wrote.

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