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Court upholds verdict against Arizona rancher who detained illegal immigrants on his land

A federal appeals court rules that Arizona rancher Roger Barnett must pay $87,000 to four illegal immigrants he detained at gunpoint. The court says the immigrants were not armed and didn't threaten him.

February 04, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • In this photo from 1999, Roger Barnett looks out on his ranch in Douglas, Ariz. Barnett's long attempts to keep illegal immigrants off his land in southeastern Arizona have won him praise and condemnation.
In this photo from 1999, Roger Barnett looks out on his ranch in Douglas,… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

A federal appeals court has upheld a controversial verdict that an Arizona rancher must pay $87,000 to four illegal immigrants he detained at gunpoint while they were crossing his property.

The ruling Thursday from a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that the 2009 civil judgment against rancher Roger Barnett was proper and that the jury should not have been instructed that they could find Barnett acted in self-defense.

"Appellant himself conceded on the stand, however, that none of the plaintiffs were armed or threatened him in any other way," the judges wrote in their ruling. "As a result, the evidence adduced at trial did not support a self-defense instruction."

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which helped litigate the case, hailed the ruling. It said Barnett threatened to sic his large dog on 24 migrants while they rested and that he kicked a woman while she lay, terrified, on the ground. Four women in the group sued.

"This decision vindicates constitutional guarantees for all," the group's president, Thomas Saenz, said in a statement Friday. "Even in Arizona, vigilantes do not have the right to harass and victimize peaceful migrants."

Barnett's attorney, John Kaufmann, said he may ask the panel to rehear the case. He said it was reasonable for his client to have his gun drawn as he approached strangers in the dead of the night.

"As soon as he found out they weren't armed, he put his gun away," Kaufmann said.

The lawsuit was initially heard in U.S. District Court in Tucson before the presiding judge there, John M. Roll. After Roll allowed the claim to proceed, he received so many threats from foes of illegal immigration that U.S. marshals were assigned to protect him.

Roll was killed in the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) last month. Nothing has indicated that the man charged in the shootings knew of the judge's role in the Barnett case.

This is the second verdict against Barnett, whose attempts to keep illegal immigrants off his land in southeastern Arizona have won him praise and condemnation. In 2008, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a nearly $100,000 judgment against the rancher for detaining a family of Latino U.S. citizens — including two children — at gunpoint.

Ranchers in southern Arizona, the busiest point of entry for illegal immigrants, have complained for years that border crossers trash their land and threaten their safety. At a ranch near Barnett's, Robert Krentz was shot to death last year on his property. Authorities suspect a drug trafficker may have killed him.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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