Louisiana’s highest court on Wednesday heard arguments over a law that makes it a felony for immigrants to drive in the state without documents on hand to prove that they live legally in the United States.
The state’s 10-year-old law, ridiculed by its opponents as a prohibition on “driving while Latino,” has come under fire before, on accusations that it encourages racial profiling and harassment of minorities.
But those allegations were not up for debate Wednesday.
Instead, three noncitizens arrested in Lafayette challenged the constitutionality of the law based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year. The nation’s highest court struck down a similar Arizona law because it attempted to enforce immigration regulations that only the federal government — not the states — has jurisdiction over.
The Lafayette Parish Public Defender’s Office challenged the state law, with support from three national civil-rights groups — the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigration Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center — along with four foreign nations — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
But the state, represented by the Attorney General’s Office and the Lafayette Parish district attorney, argues that the law does not seek to regulate immigration; its purpose is to root out terrorists and ensure safety on the state’s highways.
The Legislature passed the statute, called Prevention of Terrorism on Highways Act, in 2002, the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Terrorism is a real threat on our interstate,” Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark told the court Wednesday.
Justice John L. Weimer on Wednesday pressed the attorneys on whether the terrorism statute has ever nabbed an actual terrorist.
Chad Ikerd, the Lafayette public defender representing the accused, said that it has not.
Ikerd asked the court to question the law’s true public safety implications, saying immigration documentation does not make a person a better driver. It is as frivolous, he argued, as requiring people to carry a library card or a voter registration when they drive.
He noted that any nonresident, even those in the country legally, could be arrested for simply failing to bring their paperwork along with them in the car.
But Clark dismissed the suggestion that the statute infringes on the federal government’s sole power to regulate immigration.
Not having immigration documentation is a federal misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail.
In Louisiana, if the person is caught without documents while driving a car, the law raises the penalty to a felony punishable by one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Clark said that the state is not attempting to keep track of the status of immigrants — the law does not require all immigrants to carry documentation of their citizenship status. It requires only those who drive to do so.
Although this question was not before them Wednesday, two Supreme Court justices seemed to fixate on the profiling implications.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson asked how many people have been arrested under the law, and Weimer questioned how many among them have Hispanic surnames.
Ikerd said his office has represented between 250 and 300 since 2005. Just one of them did not have a Hispanic last name, though when they looked into it they found that the person was, indeed, Latino.
James Prather Jr., a Lafayette assistant district attorney, interjected that non-Latinos have been charged under the statute, but he did not provide a detailed accounting.
Clark, after Wednesday’s session, said the Attorney General’s Office does not compile statewide statistics on the number of people charged under the statute or their nationalities.
The controversial law is enforced sporadically across the state, rarely if ever in New Orleans.
The scatter-shot enforcement stems from disagreement among the appellate courts over whether the statute is legally enforceable.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in 2006 struck down the law as unconstitutional. But the 1st Circuit in Baton Rouge ruled the opposite. Neither decision applied to other jurisdictions because the Supreme Court has not taken the issue up until now.
The justices took the matter under consideration and will likely issue a written ruling later this month.
If Ikerd’s clients lose, he said that he will challenge the statute on other grounds, likely starting with whether it promotes racial profiling and thus violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to equal protection under the law.