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Connecticut District Court Finds ICE Agents Not Shielded from Bivens Liability; Suit Settles for $350,000

In a lawsuit brought by the Yale Law Clinic on behalf of Hispanics swept up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in New Haven in June 2007, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut held that ICE officials are not immune from liability for federal civil rights violations. The plaintiffs had argued that ICE instituted policies and practices that violated the Fourth Amendment rights of 11 Hispanic plaintiffs when ICE agents entered their homes without search warrants or consent during the raid, sometimes with guns drawn.

A motion to dismiss filed on behalf of ICE was denied in part and granted in part, but the core of the lawsuit was allowed to proceed, according to Muneer Ahmad, director of the Yale Law Clinic. Yale law student Mark Pedulla, one of six students working on the case, stated, “Everyone was pleased with the decision. It’s an important step.” Pro-bono attorneys from the firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton also represent some of the plaintiffs.

According to the complaint, ICE officers “allegedly entered private residences without search warrants or consent, and arrested persons therein without arrest warrants or probable cause ... defendants detained all of the plaintiffs before learning about their immigration status ... did not inform the plaintiffs of their rights or why they were being seized ... [and] coerced them into signing English forms with no or minimal translation.”

The plaintiffs also alleged that “the raid was planned and executed in order to ‘punish’ the City of New Haven for immigrant-friendly policies. The raid came shortly after the New Haven Board of Alderman voted to approve the Elm City Resident Card program, which was designed to provide persons – including immigrants – with identification cards to enable them more easily to open bank accounts.”

The defendants had argued in their motion to dismiss that the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) deprived the district court of subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, quoting INA sections 1252(b)(9), 1252(g) and 1252(a)(2)(B)(ii). In a December 16, 2010 ruling, the court found that those provisions only prevent district courts from directly reviewing final orders of removal, distinguishing Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) and finding the Second Circuit’s decision in Huang v. Johnson, 251 F.3d 65 (2d Cir. 2001) more persuasive.

The district court also held that individual ICE agents and supervisors could be held liable under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), and cited the case of Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865 (2d Cir. 1995) to demonstrate that ICE staff were previously apprised of alleged constitutional violations and therefore not protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity. “[A] failure to train [ICE staff] can be an active violation on the part of a supervisor who has willfully chosen to allow [problems] resulting from a lack of training,” the court wrote.

The district court concluded that “it was clearly established that law enforcement officers could not act with discriminatory animus on the basis of race or ethnic origin when making arrests.... The question whether the officers were actually so motivated is a classic issue of fact. As a result, genuine issues of material fact preclude a determination at this stage whether the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to ... equal protection claims.” See: Diaz-Bernal v. Myers, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:09-cv-01734-SRU.

The case subsequently settled in December 2011, with the defendants agreeing to pay $350,000, inclusive of attorney fees and costs, and ICE agreeing to provide certain “immigration-related benefits” to the plaintiffs. Those benefits included ICE granting three of the plaintiffs “deferred-action status” on their immigration proceedings for a period of four years. ICE officials further agreed to “move to terminate with prejudice” removal proceedings against four of the plaintiffs.

“Today’s settlement is a victory of law, but the real case yet to be tried is a matter of the character and temperament of this nation as it relates to immigration, and how we as a nation, a state and a people view our legacy as a nation of immigrants,” said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.

“Everybody has rights in this country,” noted Alderman Ernie Santiago. “It doesn’t matter if you are legal or illegal – you have rights.”

Additional sources: National Law Journal, Yale Daily News

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Related legal case

Diaz-Bernal v. Myers