May 2, 2013 4:04 PM by KATC

Lafayette man's appeal could send 'lawful presence' statute to state's Supreme Court

The Third District Court of Appeals has ruled that a law forcing drivers to either prove their citizenship or face a felony charge is unconstitutional.

The court's ruling, released Wednesday, sets the stage for the law to be heard before the Louisiana Supreme Court if the state chooses to appeal. The ruling also contradicts an earlier ruling on a separate, but similar, case made by a Baton Rouge appeals court.

The Third District decision was based on the case of Alexis Sarrabea. He was arrested under the unlawful presence statute after being pulled over in Lafayette Parish. He spent three months in parish jail after pleading "not guilty." He later changed his plea to "no contest" -- an acceptance of the charges but not an admission of guilt -- on the grounds that he could later challenge the validity of the law.

Sarrabea later appealed, claiming the law was overly vague, unconstitutional and that only the federal government has the authority to regulate immigration. The appellate court agreed.

"To put it plain and simple, (the law)  is preempted by federal law; and the state of Louisiana lacks constitutional authority to enforce it," wrote Judge Sylvia Cooks in the opinion.

In the opinion, Cooks also wrote that the law was enforced related to whether or not the person carried their documentation with them, not whether they were actually in the country illegally or not. Sarrabea's convection was thrown out by the appellate court.

A KATC Investigation has found that, between 2008 and March of 2013, there were 288 arrests in Lafayette Parish on a charge of driving without a lawful U.S. presence. In many of those cases, that charge is one that has kept people in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center rather than an immigration facility.

The "lawful presence" statute carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

Aside from the immigration status, in many cases the other charges that led to traffic stops in the first place would not have required any jail time, according to a survey of all of the arrests made in Lafayette Parish since 2008.


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