Court tosses Arizona's no-bail law for immigrants

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX (AP) -- An appeals court on Wednesday struck down a voter-approved law in Arizona that denies bail to immigrants who are in the country illegally and have been charged with a range of felonies that include shoplifting, aggravated identity theft, sexual assault and murder.

An 11-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law violates due-process rights by imposing punishment before trial.

Proponents of the 2006 law said the statute prevents people who aren't authorized to be in the country and skip out on their bail from committing future offenses. Critics say the law's real intent is to punish immigrants before they have been convicted of crimes.

The law was approved with 78 percent of the vote and was among four immigration proposals approved by Arizonans in 2006. The other measures made English the state's official language, barred immigrants who aren't authorized to be in the country from receiving punitive damages in lawsuits and prohibited them from receiving certain government services and benefits.

Arizona is one of at least four states with laws confronting the issue of bail for people in the country without authorization. Missouri and Alabama have similar laws, while Virginia has a less stringent statute in which immigrants are allowed to argue their case for bail before a judge.

Arizona's no-bail law was proposed by then-state Rep. Russell Pearce, who later would succeed in pushing through Arizona's landmark 2010 immigration enforcement law.

A three-member panel of the appeals court previously rejected a challenge to the no-bail law, finding it didn't run afoul of the Constitution. But the law's challengers succeeded in getting a larger panel of the court to consider the case.

American Civil Liberties Union and other groups maintain immigrants are unfairly held and denied their fundamental constitutional rights while others are allowed to put up bond in exchange for their freedom before trial.

The challengers say the Legislature's push to put the measure on the ballot was permeated with the intent to punish people who were in the country illegally for federal immigration violations. They also argue federal law trumps the state law.

The lawyers defending the law say the intent of the statute was to improve public safety, not to punish people for federal immigration violations. They also said the state law doesn't conflict with federal law.

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Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery issued the following statement:

"There is an obvious disconnect between the Court's focus on a policy disagreement and the rhetoric of eight years ago with what is actually going on today. It is a fact that persons committing crimes in Maricopa County who are present without lawful authority have failed to appear when admission to bail was a regular practice. In these circumstances, since conditions of release include the admonition to be law abiding, we have the immediate reality of matters where a person accused of a crime is simultaneously in violation of federal law due to federal inaction, incompetence, and indifference. Rather than protect public safety and victims of crime, the Ninth Circuit has chosen to create a victim class of criminals. We are currently reviewing and determining our next steps in this matter."