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Essentially holding that ignorance of the law is no excuse, a federal appeals court has ruled that an Ohio state trooper forfeited his immunity from suit when, after a routine traffic stop, he confiscated the green cards belonging to a pair of migrant farm workers. Rather than promptly verify the cards’ authenticity and then return them to the farm workers, Ohio State Highway Patrol officer Kevin Kiefer locked the cards in his desk for four days while he went on vacation. The Oct. 17 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resolves only part of a larger class action filed against the highway patrol by a group of approximately 8,000 migrant farm workers claiming that they are routinely subjected to unconstitutional traffic-stop searches and seizures simply because of their Latino origins. Farm Labor Organizing Committee v. The Ohio State Highway Patrol, No. 00-3653. Filed pro bono by the Toledo, Ohio-based Equal Justice Foundation, the complaint seeks money damages, declaratory relief and an injunction barring the highway patrol from making traffic stops, searches and seizures based on national origin without a legally sufficient cause or justification. Ordinarily, troopers enjoy a qualified immunity from lawsuits as long as their police conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional or statutory rights. In affirming an April 2000 Ohio federal court ruling, the 6th Circuit said that “a reasonable officer at the time of the events in question would have known that the Constitution forbade embarking on an investigation of someone for a particular offense on the basis of that person’s race.” But the three-judge panel split, 2-1, on its ruling, with dissenting Judge Cornelia G. Kennedy arguing that people may differ as to what the law was when Kiefer stopped the workers as they drove along a highway near Toledo in 1995. The workers, Jose Aguilar and Irma Esparza, were stopped by Kiefer because of a defective headlight. According to the court, when Kiefer and another trooper saw that Aguilar and Esparza were of Latino descent, they asked the workers to produce their green cards. VALID GREEN CARDS The cards had been legally issued and were in force on the day of the stop. But, suspecting that they may be forgeries, the troopers asked the workers if they had paid for them. Esparza and Aguilar, who had difficulty with English, thought they were being asked if they had paid the required fees for the cards’ issuance and answered “yes,” prompting the troopers to take the cards away. Attorney Kimberly M. Skaggs, the foundation’s executive director, argued the appeal before the 6th Circuit. Stating that traffic stops of migrant workers are a common practice in northwestern Ohio, she demurred when asked how much money the class sought from either Kiefer or the highway patrol, adding, “it’s about protecting the entire class. “Just because someone looks Latino, you can’t impose restrictions that you don’t impose on other motorists,” Skaggs said. Kiefer, who retired from the force in 1999, now faces trial on allegations that he violated the workers’ equal protection rights. The circuit court has already affirmed a lower court finding that the trooper had violated the farm workers’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful seizures. Asked if stripping Kiefer of his immunity made sense when even federal appeals court justices could disagree on the state of the law, Skaggs said that she disagreed with Kennedy. “The state of the law is clear. There was no rational reason to ask these plaintiffs for proof of citizenship,” Skaggs said. Citing a policy against commenting on pending cases, a spokesperson for the Ohio attorney general’s office declined to comment on the ruling.

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