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Second Circuit Reverses Judgment in Favor of U.S. Citizen Held 3½ Years in Immigration Detention

by Matt Clarke

On July 31, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a judgment for a U.S. citizen who was improperly held in an immigration detention facility for 1,273 days.

Davino Watson was born in Jamaica. When he was 13, he entered the U.S as a lawful permanent resident to live with his father, a Jamaican citizen who was a lawful permanent resident. His father became a naturalized U.S. citizen four years later. Under the law in effect at that time, this automatically made Watson a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Five years later, Watson pleaded guilty in New York state court to selling cocaine, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents investigated his citizenship status. He claimed to be a U.S. citizen and provided the names, addresses and phone numbers for his father, Hopeton Ulando Watson, and step-mother, Clare Watson. ICE officials made no attempt to verify this information. Instead, they looked for those names in the ICE database and found files for Hopeton Livingston Watson and Calrie Watson, both of whom were Jamaican citizens. Although a cursory reading of the files would have shown they were not Watson’s parents, an ICE agent used the files to justify deportation proceedings against Watson.

When Watson was due to be released from state custody, he was picked up by ICE and taken to a detention center. He was held for 1,273 days, continuously asserting that he was a U.S. citizen and fighting his case pro se because he was not entitled to an attorney and could not afford one. He was transferred to ICE facilities in Alabama and Louisiana during his detention.

Finally, the case reached the Second Circuit. The appellate court appointed pro bono counsel who quickly proved that Watson was in fact a U.S. citizen and ICE had been using incorrect case files. Watson was released.

Aided by Chicago attorney Mark A. Flesser, Watson then filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), alleging two types of negligence – malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. The district court, which called Watson’s experience a “legal disaster,” found the government liable only on the false imprisonment claim, limited that claim to Watson’s first 27 days of detention and awarded $82,500 in damages.

“Plaintiff was badly treated by government employees,” the district court stated. “He deserves a letter of apology from the United States in addition to damages. But this court is not empowered to order this courtesy.”

Both parties appealed from the district court’s judgment.

The Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of the negligence and malicious prosecution claims and held the false imprisonment claim was time barred, finding that Watson would have had to file his false imprisonment suit while he was still in detention for it to have been timely. That effectively denied a U.S. citizen who was improperly imprisoned for 3½ years any form of judicial relief.

“In sum, there is no doubt that the government botched the investigation into Watson’s assertion of citizenship, and that as a result a U.S. citizen was held for years in immigration detention and was nearly deported,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Nonetheless, we must conclude that Watson is not entitled to damages from the government. His false imprisonment claim was untimely, his malicious prosecution claim does not demonstrate malice, his ‘negligent investigation’ claim fails for lack of a proper analogue in state law, and his claim for negligent delivery of a certificate of citizenship fails because Watson could not show cognizable damages.”

Accordingly, the judgment was reversed with respect to the false imprisonment claim and otherwise affirmed. Watson’s appeal as to the amount of damages for his false imprisonment claim was dismissed as moot. This case, while resulting in an adverse outcome, provides a good example of the potential pitfalls involved in FTCA actions. See: Watson v. United States, 865 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 2017). 


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Related legal case

Watson v. United States