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Wrongful Immigration Detention Suit Reinstated by Second Circuit, Dismissed on Remand

Viterbo Liranzo, born in the Dominican Republic, was a U.S. citizen through section 321 of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which conferred derivative citizenship on children of U.S. citizens. He was required to apply for a certificate of citizenship, but did not do so. Instead, he applied for and received a resident alien card (or “green card”) to remain in the United States. Federal immigration records mistakenly indicated he was a lawful permanent resident.

In 2005, Liranzo was convicted of criminal sale of a controlled substance, a felony, which subjected him to possible deportation. He was detained by immigration agents after he told them he was a citizen of the Dominican Republic, and held in custody for seven months beyond his release date. He was then transported to the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, Louisiana, where his attorney convinced the government that he was, in fact, a U.S. citizen based on his entitlement to derivative citizenship.

Liranzo exhausted his administrative remedies with the Department of Homeland Security and filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York in 2008, seeking damages for “false arrest and imprisonment” and other tortious conduct. Following two years of discovery, the government raised the defense of sovereign immunity based on the limited nature of the Federal Tort Claim Act’s sovereign immunity waiver. “Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the federal Government and its agencies from suit.... The waiver extends only to claims for which a private analogue exists – that is, the waiver extends only to claims that could be brought against a ‘private individual under like circumstances.’”

The government argued that since immigration detention is an exclusively federal function there could be no private analogue, and hence no waiver of sovereign immunity. The district court adopted that argument and dismissed Liranzo’s suit in 2010 for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3).

On appeal, the Second Circuit described the history of the Federal Tort Claims Act and noted that a 1974 amendment waived sovereign immunity for “any claim arising ... out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, abuse of process, or malicious prosecution.” 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). The appellate court also found the case of Indian Towing Co. v. United States, 350 U.S. 61 (1955) had expanded the breadth of government liability, stating, “To say that the challenged action is one that only the federal government does in fact perform does not necessarily mean that no private analogue exists.” The Court of Appeals wrote that “the proper analogy seems to us to be a person who, entirely in his or her private capacity, places someone under arrest for an alleged violation of the law – a so-called ‘citizen’s arrest.’”

Acknowledging the ambiguity in federal case law that recognized the “special status” of immigration agents, the Second Circuit turned to applicable state case law for assistance, and tried to reconcile that with cases such as United States v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150 (1963) and Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950). “The fact that a complained of action occurs in a quintessentially federal context, moreover, does not necessarily mean that no private analogue exists.... The case before us is ... more closely akin to Muniz than Feres. In sum, it does not follow from the fact that immigration is a quintessentially federal function that immigration detention is without a private non-federal officer analogue. Even for alleged torts occurring in quintessentially federal contexts, the question remains whether analogous private liability exists under state law – and here, we conclude that it does.”

The Court of Appeals thus remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, specifically to consider “which federal standards govern the determination of whether the government official’s actions here were privileged.” The appellate court upheld the dismissal of Liranzo’s Fourth Amendment claim. See: Liranzo v. United States, 690 F.3d 78 (2d Cir. 2012).

Following remand, a bench trial was held before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in March 2013, and findings of fact and conclusions of law were entered by the court on April 22, 2013. The court found, “There is no question that ICE filed an immigration detainer based on their justified belief that Liranzo was deportable as a non-citizen convicted of a felony because he had signed a form in which he identified himself as a citizen of the Dominican Republic.... The evidence at trial makes clear that Liranzo did so because he did not realize he was entitled to derivative citizenship until removal proceedings were initiated against him in 2006.”

Liranzo further failed to prove that the government had unreasonably delayed his release by delaying “investigating the authenticity of his claim until they were in receipt of original documents.” Additionally, he failed to establish his claims of assault, battery and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Therefore, the district court granted the government’s motion for a directed verdict at the close of Liranzo’s case at the bench trial, and dismissed his lawsuit. See: Liranzo v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NY), Case No. 08-cv-02940; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59333.

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Related legal case

Liranzo v. United States