PHOENIX – Police agencies that would enforce the most controversial part of Arizona's 2010 immigration law are expected to get squeezed by legal challenges from opposite sides if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the law in the coming days.
Opponents of the Arizona law, known as SB1070, are likely to sue police departments on claims that officers racially profile people as they enforce the provision of the law that requires police to check the immigration status of people they stop for other reasons.
But legal challenges also are expected from the other side: from supporters who could claim that a police agency has broken the law if it restricts the enforcement of SB1070.
"There are people just waiting to challenge this law on both sides of the spectrum," said Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor.
A little-known section of the law lets anyone sue an agency that has a policy that restricts the enforcement of immigration law. The provision was aimed at holding cities accountable for "sanctuary policies" that discourage or prohibit officers from inquiring about a person's immigration status. Agencies that are found by a court to have sanctuary policies face fines of $500 to $5,000 for each day such a violation remains in effect after the filing of the lawsuit.
The right to sue was among the parts of the law that were allowed to take effect in July 2010. But a federal judge has barred police from enforcing the law's more contentious sections, such as a requirement that officers check the immigration status of people they stop for other reasons.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule before the end of the month on Gov. Jan Brewer's appeal of the 2010 ruling. Legal experts expect that the court likely will uphold the requirement for immigration-status checks, siding with Arizona officials' legal argument that SB1070 is not trumped by federal immigration law.
Such a ruling will prompt groups that already have challenged the law to ask the courts to again prevent enforcement of the controversial sections based on other arguments, such as racial profiling.
While seven challenges to the law have been filed, no lawsuits have been brought to court so far that alleged that a police agency had a sanctuary policy.
The question about what types of immigration inquiries police can make came to a head in Arizona during 2007 when Phoenix police Officer Nick Erfle was killed by an illegal immigrant, who shot the officer as he tried to arrest the immigrant on a warrant.
After his release from prison and subsequent deportation, the immigrant sneaked into the country again and was arrested for misdemeanor assault in Scottsdale, but wasn't reported to federal immigration authorities. The immigrant was fatally shot a short time later by police as he pointed a gun at a carjacking victim's head.
Phoenix revamped its policy on officers inquiring about people's immigration status after a union representing 2,500 rank-and-file officers had complained that officers were tired of seeing crimes tied to illegal immigration.
Under the law's right-to-sue provision, officers are indemnified from having to pay attorney fees and other legal costs in such lawsuits unless they are found to have acted in bad faith.
Paradise Valley Police Chief John Bennett, who is president for the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, declined to comment on the possibility of additional lawsuits on allegations that police racially profiled people or agencies were restricting the enforcement of immigration laws.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills, a key advocate for the 2010 law, said he wasn't expecting any lawsuits against alleging sanctuary policies because he believes officers will enforce SB1070.
"These are more red herrings brought by the opponents of SB1070 who don't want people to accept that it's reasonable," Kavanagh said.
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat who believed the law was misguided, said the right-to-sue provision was an unusual attempt to micromanage police departments.
"Unless you fully investigate the misdemeanor charge of being in the country without citizenship papers, you could be sued," Goddard said. "Whereas if you don't follow up on an armed robbery, you can't be sued. It's meddling with the police chief's ability to decide what's best for the safety of a community."
Former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, the chief sponsor of the state's 2010 immigration enforcement law, said the law's right-to-sue provision was needed to ensure that cities don't come up with restrictions on enforcing immigration law.
"It's all about compliance," Pearce said. "If you don't comply, there will be lawsuits. If you do comply, there's no problem."