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Lawsuit: Montana judge had no right to ask for arrest of immigrant who was in court to testify for his wife

Lawsuit: Montana judge had no right to ask for arrest of immigrant who was in court to testify for his wife

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Retired Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez

Retired Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez

An immigrant rights group alleged Monday that a Montana judge acted illegally when he asked a deputy to take away from his court a Mexican-born man who was later detained by federal immigration authorities.

Miguel Angel Reynaga Hernandez, a 40-year-old construction worker living in Billings, was detained in October after appearing in court with his wife, who was seeking a civil protection order against another person.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project contends that former Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez had no authority to initiate Reynaga's arrest. The group on Friday sued the judge and Yellowstone County sheriff's deputy Derrek Skinner on Reynaga's behalf in federal court.

"If a county or city sticks its nose into federal immigration matters, they are going to be held liable," said Matt Adams, an attorney with the Seattle-based group. "Their job is to serve the community, not to help out their federal immigration authority buddies."

Local law enforcement agencies have turned over suspects to federal immigration officials, which President Donald Trump has encouraged, but Adams said Reynaga's case is the first he knows of where a judge initiated such a move.

Advocates and judges have asked federal officials not to track immigrants at state courthouses, saying it can make victims and witnesses afraid to appear for hearings.

Hernandez, who retired in November after 42 years on the bench, said Monday that he had not been served with the lawsuit. He told The Associated Press that he remembered the case and had been obligated as a judge to report that Reynaga was in the country illegally.

"When the court is notified that something's illegal, we are supposed to notify authorities," Hernandez said. "That's the function of the court."

Skinner, the deputy, could not be reached immediately for comment.

At the Justice Court hearing in October, Reynaga had intended to testify on his wife’s behalf, according to the complaint. Before he could, an opposing witness told the judge that Reynaga was in the country illegally, and the judge asked an assistant to call law enforcement.

“Call me a deputy,” the judge said, according to the complaint. “I have two illegals sitting outside, I want them picked up. Call.”

When Skinner arrived to arrest Reynaga, he asked Reynaga for identification and whether he was in the country legally, the complaint says. Reynaga declined to answer but was arrested anyway. Skinner searched him and confiscated his identification card.

Reynaga says he was never informed of the reason for his arrest or advised of his rights. A search of his name through the national criminal database, the National Crime Information Center, turned up no arrest warrants, and Hernandez did not issue a warrant before ordering Deputy Skinner to make the arrest.

Hernandez came outside to the deputy’s patrol car to make sure the arrest had been carried out, the complaint states.

Reynaga’s wife also came outside to the patrol car to speak with the deputy arresting her husband, and was asked whether she was in the country illegally. She replied that she had been born and raised in Billings.

Some places in the U.S. have "sanctuary" policies that prevent cooperation with detention requests from federal immigration authorities, but none are in Montana.

Reynaga was arrested just outside Hernandez's courtroom and taken to the local jail before being turned over to federal officials, according to the lawsuit.

It seeks unspecified damages for emotional and economic harm that Reynaga suffered as a result of being detained for three months. It also asks the court to declare that the deputy and judge were not authorized to detain Reynaga solely for being suspected of living in the country illegally.

Deportation proceedings against Reynaga were dismissed last month for "good cause," according to an order from Immigration Judge John Odell in Tacoma, Washington. Adams said the dismissal was based on Reynaga's unlawful arrest, but that could not immediately be verified Monday.

Montana’s Justice Courts are limited in their jurisdiction, dealing primarily in small civil matters and misdemeanor criminal cases.

The Billings Gazette's Phoebe Tollefson contributed to this report.


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