West Mifflin woman sues over incorrect immigration arrest

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Born in Mexico but living in America since age 2, Angelica Davila said she was shocked in 2011 to find herself in the Allegheny County Jail, on suspicion of being an illegal alien.

"I had never been in trouble," Ms. Davila said in an interview. Her thoughts, as she tried to sleep on a holding cell floor: "Am I going to be taken back to Mexico? Is my car going to be taken away from me?"

Ms. Davila, 28, of West Mifflin on Tuesday sued the North Regional Joint Police Board, two of its officers, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and Allegheny County alleging that the overnight detention violated her civil rights.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is providing the legal muscle for the lawsuit, called her case "a blatant example of ethnic profiling. ... The police questioned her status only because of her ethnicity and that of her passenger."

The officers and chief of the Northern Regional police could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Davila is the child of Americans -- one native born, the other naturalized -- which under a 2001 law automatically made her a citizen, according to the lawsuit by ACLU attorney Sara Rose.

Ms. Davila grew up in the border town of McAllen, Texas, and came to Pittsburgh five years ago by accident.

On a road trip to New York, her car was struck from behind in West Virginia. With limited mobility and money, she looked for the nearest Olive Garden, having worked at one of their restaurants before. It was in Pittsburgh.

She got a job at an Olive Garden, and has since moved on to customer service work. "I fell in love with Pittsburgh," she said.

Armed with a permanent residency card, she filed for an optional Certificate of Citizenship in June 2010. She had not yet received it at the time of her arrest Jan. 22, 2011.

Ms. Davila was with a friend leaving a Mexican grocery in Pine, when a police officer pulled her over at about 5:45 p.m., according to the civil complaint.

North Regional Officer Andrew Bienemann, according to the complaint, asked for identification from both Ms. Davila and her friend, Joel Garrete, who does not speak English. Ms. Davila translated for Mr. Garrete.

The officer opted to check their immigration status, according to the complaint. Ms. Davila showed her driver's license. Mr. Garrete admitted that he is a Honduran who was in the U.S. without permission.

The officer called Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE agent Brianna Tetrault issued detainers for both Ms. Davila and Mr. Garrete, and Officer Bienemann arrested them and took them to the Allegheny County Jail, according to the complaint.

Ms. Rose said the police had no reason to ask about Ms. Davila's immigration status, ICE should not have issued a detainer, and the jail has no obligation to hold someone based on such a detainer. "My understanding is that the ICE database is just full of errors," Ms. Rose said.

An ICE spokesman said the agency doesn't comment on litigation. ICE in 2011 and 2012 has provided new guidelines that curb the jailing of people suspected of being illegal immigrants who were stopped for traffic offenses or petty crimes.

At 9:50 p.m. on the night of the arrest, an ICE agent called Officer Bienemann and told him Ms. Davila was a legal resident and need not be detained, according to the complaint. It alleges that the officer took no action to have her released that night and she was kept in jail until 7:30 a.m.

Ms. Rose said everyone involved had a duty to release Ms. Davila as soon as it was clear that she had committed no crime. A county spokeswoman did not comment.

The lawsuit claims that Ms. Davila's rights to equal protection and to be free from unreasonable seizure and false arrest were violated. She seeks compensatory and punitive damages, plus attorney fees.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published January 16, 2013 5:00 AM


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