A federal appeals court struck down an Arizona law on Wednesday that denied bail to some immigrants who are in the United States illegally and charged with serious felonies, saying it violated constitutional due process protections.
In a review, an 11-member panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision and agreed with a couple who filed a class action complaint in 2008 against defendants including Maricopa County and its controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
They were challenging a ballot measure that passed with overwhelming support from Arizona voters two years earlier and amended the state's constitution to deny bail for certain felony offenses if the person charged is in the country illegally.
But the 9th Circuit said the move was unconstitutional since it did not address an acute problem, was not limited to a specific category of very serious offenses, and did not consider the individual factors needed to determine if a suspect is an unmanageable flight risk.
Writing for the majority, Judge Raymond Fisher said the U.S. Constitution protects every person within the nation's borders from deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
Most states that prohibit bail at all do so only for capital offenses or for other very serious crimes, he said, and other than Arizona, only Missouri singles out undocumented immigrants for the categorical denial of bail.
"There is no evidence that undocumented status correlates closely with unmanageable flight risk," Fisher wrote.
The defendants speculate that undocumented immigrants pose a greater flight risk, he added. "But this assumption ignores those undocumented immigrants who do have strong ties to their community or do not have a home abroad."
Judge Jacqueline Nguyen concurred with Fisher, saying she believed the state's amendment was drafted on purpose to punish undocumented immigrants for their illegal status.
"Intentionally meting out pretrial punishment for charged but unproven crimes, or the nonexistent crime of being 'in this country illegally,' is without question, a violation of due process principles," Nguyen wrote.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said there was an "obvious disconnect" between the court's focus and reality on the ground.
"Rather than protect public safety and victims of crime, the 9th Circuit has chosen to create a victim class of criminals," Montgomery said in a statement. "We are currently reviewing and determining our next steps in this matter."
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver; Editing by Eric Walsh and Eric Beech)