Photo Courtesy of ICE via Wikimedia Commons

A U.S. citizen who was held in custody for more than three years under the mistaken belief he was deportable has lost his false imprisonment claim against immigration officials as untimely, a divided federal appeals court panel ruled.

The decision, which came on a 2-1 vote by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, was handed down with language in the majority opinion calling the detention by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials “arresting and disturbing.”

A dissent from Chief Judge Robert Katzmann stressed that the case illustrates the consequences of giving the government broad authority to initiate deportation proceedings while those who are subject to removal are afforded no right to counsel.

But the majority of a Second Circuit panel said the clock for the plaintiff, Davino Watson, to bring claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which has a two-year statute of limitations, began ticking in 2008, when he was taken into ICE custody.

Writing for the majority, Judge Dennis Jacobs said that “there is no doubt that the government botched the investigation” into Watson’s citizenship, which resulted in a long detention and the threat of deportation. But Watson is not entitled to damages, Jacobs said, and his “false imprisonment claim was untimely and cannot be saved by equitable tolling.” Judge Debra Ann Livingston joined Jacobs in the majority.

Katzmann argued in dissent that Watson’s claims should have been equitably tolled until 2014, when he learned that he had the right to sue the government.

Watson was born in Jamaica in 1984, according to the majority opinion. Years later, his father, then a Brooklyn resident, obtained a visa for Watson, who became a lawful permanent resident at age 13. In 2002, Watson received derivative citizenship after his father became a naturalized citizen.

In 2007, the opinion said, Watson was convicted on a cocaine sales charge and sent to prison. He was scheduled to complete New York’s Shock Incarceration program for young, nonviolent offenders in May 2008. At that time, court papers said, ICE agents became involved.

A corrections officer asked ICE for Watson’s file, but the agency provided a file for the wrong person. Even though Watson’s name was not contained in the file, an ICE agent concluded from it that he was deportable, according to the majority opinion.

ICE took him into custody in 2008 and Watson attempted, on his own and without success, court papers said, to convince authorities of his lawful U.S. citizenship.

The issue partly depended upon whether Watson was entitled to derivative citizenship through his father, when his parents were unwed. Under the Board of Immigration Appeals’ interpretation of Jamaican law, ICE concluded, the “legitimation” of a birth—and therefore recognition of legal paternity—rests solely upon the wedding of the parents. The Jamaican ruling to that effect and which ICE relied upon according to the Second Circuit panel, was issued shortly after Watson’s detention began, the appeals court said.

The detention logjam did not break until 2011, when upon looking into the retroactive effect of the Board of Immigration Appeals decision, ICE relented and allowed the possibility that his derivative citizenship was valid.

The lawsuit was filed by Watson in 2014 under the FTCA. The following year, Eastern District Judge Jack Weinstein denied Watson’s malicious prosecution claim, as well as two negligence claims, but found the government liable for false imprisonment. Weinstein subsequently entered an $82,500 damages award. In so doing, he lamented the lack of legal assistance afforded persons facing deportation.

In his dissent, Katzmann echoed Weinstein’s concerns about a lack of lawyers for defendants who face deportation.

“I am hopeful that one day soon no immigrant or citizen will be forced to go through a predicament like Watson’s without the assistance of counsel to help vindicate his cause,” Katzmann said.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Joseph Marutollo, Varuni Nelson, James Cho and Elliot Schachner appeared for the government. A spokesman for the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Watson was represented pro bono by Holland & Knight attorneys Mark Flessner and Robert Burns. Flessner said in an interview that it has yet to be decided if his client will apply for en banc review by the full Second Circuit or apply to the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.