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N.O. police halt immigration arrests

State law had been used to check legal status during traffic stops.

February 09, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Lawyers and civil rights advocates are claiming a victory after the New Orleans Police Department issued a directive Tuesday prohibiting officers from arresting people they suspect are in the country illegally after a traffic stop.

A Louisiana statute makes it a felony for "alien students" and "nonresident aliens" to drive a vehicle without documentation proving that they are in the United States legally.

The law was an attempt to prevent potential terrorists from obtaining driver's licenses or using the highways to commit crimes.

But advocates say it has been used primarily to stop and detain Latinos, many of whom have come to the city since Hurricane Katrina, seeking work.

"Effective immediately all members of the department are prohibited from arresting anyone for violation of [the statute]," stated a directive signed this week by Police Supt. Warren J. Riley. "Federal law preempts state law."

Attorneys for the drivers who were charged and other legal experts said that a state law regulating the conduct of noncitizens is invalid if it regulates immigration, which is the domain of the federal government.

Riley ordered the new regulation to be read at roll call for at least 14 days.

New Orleans attorney Louis W. Irvin commended the directive, but said the statute was still being enforced in several Louisiana parishes outside New Orleans.

"What we are trying to do is get this in federal court ... to get some kind of federal ruling on the constitutionality of it," said Irvin, who with law partner Oscar Araujo is handling two cases related to the statute in neighboring parishes.

Last week, the attorneys helped secure the release of Juan Herrera-Olvera, a Mexican construction worker, who was arrested and jailed under the immigration statute on Oct. 2 following a traffic stop.

New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr. found that Herrera-Olvera's arrest was "made without probable cause, because it was the result of a selective enforcement policy, profiling, targeting and arresting Latino drivers."

Police officials deny they practice racial profiling.

A ruling in another case relating to the Louisiana statute is pending in the state's Supreme Court.

Melissa Crow, Gulf Coast policy attorney for the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, said the New Orleans police directive was a "welcome development."

But, she added, "We hope it won't take a separate court decision in every parish, for every police chief to issue the same directive."

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