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Driving while Brown: Case of Alexis Sarrabea highlights continuing struggle of immigrants

11th November 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Guest Columnist

May 1, came and went for most of us just like any other day. But for Alexis Sarrabea, May marked freedom. Sarrabea, a 30-year-old Honduran immigrant, had been in jail for three months, arrested charged and convicted with driving without documentation in Lafa­yette. Louisiana’s Third Cir­cuit Court of Appeal reversed Mr. Sarrabea’s conviction and sentence and allowed him to regain his freedom. And ultimately, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed that decision, permanently striking down a law that had its basis in racial profiling and that served no legitimate purpose.

At the heart of the issue and Sarrabea’s arrest was Louisiana Revised Statute 14:100.13 which stated “no alien student or nonresident alien shall operate a motor vehicle in the state without documentation demonstrating that the person is lawfully present in the United States.” The penalty was a fine of $1000 or one year imprisonment, or both. Passed in the aftermath of September 11, this law was a misguided effort to prevent “terrorism” — but there were no findings to indicate that driving without carrying proof of citizenship posed any harm whatever to the people of Louisiana.

Recently the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down this racially biased law, recognizing that immigration policy is rightfully the province of federal law and that the Louisiana law went much further than federal law allows. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. United States, it’s clear that states may not regulate what documents an immigrant must carry. The ACLU submitted an amicus brief in support of Mr. Sarrabea, arguing that only by engaging in racial profiling would any law enforcement officer even question whether someone is “lawfully present in the United States. We’re proud to have taken a part in the defeat of this racially motivated law that targeted certain individuals only because of what they look like. Mr. Sarrabea may have had to spend three months in the Lafayette jail, but in the end, he was freed, and his case changed Louisiana law and will free other immigrants in Louisiana from suffering the same fate.

It would be most fortunate if cases like Sarrabea’s were rare. But they aren’t, and his three-month ordeal is another example of the obstacles faced by hard working immigrants who have come here for a better life. And at the root of cases like Alexis Sarrabea’s is a culture in our criminal justice system where people of color are targeted and profiled. Indeed, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, in reversing his conviction, stated that the official record of Sarrabea’s arrest does not provide “any factual basis for the police approaching Defendant, nor any basis which would establish probable cause for arresting Defendant.” Plain and simple, law enforcement officers saw a Hispanic man driving down the road and for no other reason than how he looked; they stopped him, arrested him and eventually convicted him of a crime.

It would be interesting to know the costs of this entire episode to the state of Louisiana. What were the administrative, legal and court costs incurred over the course of this matter? How much did it cost to house and feed Sarrabea? How many thousands of dollars went into arresting, prosecuting and convicting a person who had done nothing wrong? And, more importantly, how many times does this type of thing happen in our state and throughout the U.S. every day?

Our criminal justice system is in need of reform on many fronts and immigration legislation is in that number. Americans across the board have come to recognize that we must decrease the number of people we incarcerate and lower the costs to taxpayers while improving public safety. Whether it’s an immigrant detained without cause for three months because he couldn’t prove his legal status or the person on probation with a small amount of marijuana who lands in prison for 20 years because Louisiana’s three-strike law mandates it, the costs for prosecuting these nonviolent offenses are tremendous and unnecessary.

It could have been you driving down the road in Lafayette; and you could have been pulled over, maybe even arrested for no other reason than how you look. It’s time for that to stop.

This article originally published in the November 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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