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Police face new suit on immigrants

A legal challenge against Special Order 40, which prohibits LAPD officers from inquiring about suspects' legal status, could be filed today.

April 11, 2007|Patrick McGreevy and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Department's landmark Special Order 40, which prohibits officers from inquiring about the immigration status of suspects, has come under an aggressive assault by anti-illegal immigrant activists who argue that it ties the hands of police.

The nearly 30-year-old policy has long been controversial, but the current national debate about illegal immigration has prompted lawsuits that are aimed at overturning Special Order 40 and similar rules across the country.

Los Angeles was the first major city to enact the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on illegal immigration, though most other police agencies have followed suit. So the outcome of the legal challenges could have a widespread effect.

The latest challenge would come this week, with a lawsuit that would ask a judge to require that the LAPD inform federal immigration officials when illegal immigrants are arrested on drug charges.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
Police and immigrants: An article in the April 11 California section about a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department stated that the department's landmark Special Order 40 "prohibits officers from inquiring about the immigration status of suspects." The 1979 order states that "officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." Although officers have long interpreted the order as a prohibition, LAPD officials said they don't consider Special Order 40 a blanket ban on inquiring about immigration status.

The suit, which is endorsed by the Federal Immigration Reform Enforcement Coalition and is scheduled to be filed as early as today, cites an obscure state code that appears to require local police to report to federal authorities the names of any illegal immigrant arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking or possession.

The city is already gearing up for a trial over a Special Order 40 challenge that has been filed by another anti-illegal immigration group, the Washington, D.C.-based Judicial Watch. That group argues that the order is unconstitutional.

In both cases, plaintiffs said, they are supported by rank-and-file police officers who don't like the policy but are afraid to speak out publicly because Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton are vocal proponents of it.

Some officers are calling on the Los Angeles police union board of directors to consider, for the first time, taking a formal position on Special Order 40. The board plans to discuss the issue soon.

"We have heard there is concern among the members," said Bob Baker, president of the Police Protective League, on Tuesday.

Some legal experts said Tuesday that they were intrigued by the anti-illegal immigrant forces' use of a section of the state's Health and Safety Code to attack Special Order 40.

The section, which was written in 1972, states that in drug possession and trafficking cases involving a noncitizen, "the arresting agency shall notify the appropriate agency of the United States having charge of deportation."

"This is going to be an interesting issue," said Gerald F. Uelman, a law professor at Santa Clara University.

Uelman said that although the challenge was novel, Los Angeles officials could argue that questioning the immigration status only of drug offenders violates the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

"What is the rational basis for choosing drug offenses over violent crimes?" Uelmen said.

Politically, Special Order 40 remains very popular at L.A. City Hall -- with supporters saying that it ensures that the members of the city's many immigrant communities will cooperate with police without fear of deportation.

Villaraigosa repeated his strong support for the policy Tuesday.

"I agree with Chief Bratton and every police chief before him that requiring our police officers to double as immigration agents will result in fewer arrests, prosecutions and convictions," he said.

But the policy -- and similar ones elsewhere in the United States -- have become the focus of debates in the blogosphere and on cable news shows and talk radio.

Last week, television and radio commentator Bill O'Reilly criticized Bratton for refusing to enforce the law against illegal immigrants.

The debate comes as cities debate how to deal with illegal immigrants. Some cities, such as Maywood, which is southeast of downtown Los Angeles, have dubbed themselves "sanctuary cities" that attempt to treat illegal immigrants like citizens.

But elsewhere -- including in Orange County -- some law enforcement officials have forged stronger ties with federal immigration officials. Orange County sheriff's deputies and Costa Mesa police officers receive training from immigration officials.

In Arizona, voters decided to deny bail to illegal immigrants who had been arrested on charges involving serious felonies. And Maricopa County deputies, some Phoenix police officers and state public safety police have been trained to enforce immigration laws.

Southern California immigrant-rights activists bristle at the thought that many Special Order 40 opponents, though living outside Los Angeles, seek to dictate how the city treats its immigrants. They are concerned that other cities are moving away from similar protective orders.

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