LAFAYETTE — The state Supreme Court has struck down a Louisiana law that makes it a felony for noncitizens to drive without proof they are legally in the United States.
The opinion, released Wednesday, came in a court challenge out of Lafayette Parish to Louisiana’s “operating a vehicle without lawful presence” statute, which carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
“This was clearly an invitation to racial profiling,” said ACLU Louisiana Director Marjorie Esman, whose group joined other civil rights organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the law.
In the 5-2 court ruling, the majority opinion cited a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar law in Arizona.
The federal high court had ruled Arizona was improperly trying to enforce immigration laws, which is a realm of the federal government.
Federal law already requires noncitizens to carry proof of their status, but a violation of that law is a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
“The states can’t make a crime out of federal regulatory scheme,” said 15th Judicial District Chief Public Defender G. Paul Marx, whose office led the challenge to the Louisiana law.
The state Attorney General’s Office and the Lafayette Parish District Attorney’s Office had argued, among other things, that requiring drivers to carry papers proving they were legally in the U.S. fell within the state’s power to regulate the roads and who drives on them.
Two dissenting justices, Jeffrey Victory and Jefferson Hughes III, agreed with that argument, but the majority opinion said the federal documentation required to prove a person is legally in the U.S. “is neither directed at nor establishes competency to operate motor vehicles on the roads of this state.”
The challenge to the Louisiana law had attracted the support of the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A group of foreign governments that included Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua also filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the law, which has sometimes been ridiculed as an effort to criminalize “driving while Latino.”
It is unclear how many cases could be affected.
In Lafayette Parish alone, prosecutors charged 87 people under the law in 2012, according to records from the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court’s Office.
The ruling likely will have little impact in the New Orleans region because the state’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, which has jurisdiction over the area, had already ruled the “lawful presence” statute unconstitutional in 2006.
The state Supreme Court ruling this week noted that other appeals courts in the state have issued conflicting rulings, and the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arizona changed the legal landscape.
The Legislature passed the “lawful presence” statute in 2002.
The legislation came a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and had the stated purpose of making it easier for law enforcement officials to battle terrorism.
It was known at the time as the “Prevention of Terrorism on the Highways Act.”
State Supreme Court Justice John Weimer wrote in the opinion for the majority that despite the “laudable goal” of the Legislature, the state statute cannot be enforced because it is preempted by federal law.
Critics of the “lawful presence” statute have argued that it was used less against would-be terrorists and more against Hispanics.
Opponents say one obvious issue with the law is that there is no way of knowing whether a driver lacks proper documentation unless an officer asks that person for his papers, leaving open the question of who gets asked and who doesn’t.
“What that led to was a situation where you had local law enforcement stopping people based on skin color,” said Karen Tumlin, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
The court’s opinion this week came in the case of Alexis Sarrabea, a 30-year-old Honduran man who was arrested on the “lawful presence” charge after being pulled over in Lafayette Parish in 2012.
Sarrabea pleaded no contest after spending more than three months in jail and was sentenced to time served, but Lafayette public defender Chad Ikerd, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said Sarrabea had reserved his right to appeal.
The state’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal tossed out the conviction and prosecutors then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which this week upheld the appeal’s court ruling.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which is tasked with defending the laws of the state, issued only a brief response when asked for comment on the ruling.
“We respect the decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court in this matter,” Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Laura Gerdes Colligan said in an email.
Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, whose office also defended the law, did not respond to an email and call to his office for comment on Wednesday.