COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina police officers now are allowed to check the immigration status of anyone they detain after a federal judge Thursday lifted an injunction on a portion of the state’s immigration law.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead by lifting the injunction he had put in place late last year. The Supreme Court ruled over the summer in its decision on Arizona’s immigration law that it was not a violation of federal law for police to ask people for immigration documents.
Gergel upheld his earlier injunctions on a provision that would require immigrants to carry their legal documents and on a provision that would make it illegal to harbor or transport an illegal immigrant. The Supreme Court did not address those subjects in its opinion over the summer.
Like the Supreme Court’s ruling, Gergel’s decision comes with a reminder that police could trigger a lawsuit if their actions appear to violate a person’s civil rights. In its opinion, the Supreme Court made it clear that police could not detain a person solely to verify immigration status, and it pointed out that police could not hold a person for an unreasonable amount of time as they determine immigration status.
Gergel heard arguments in the case Tuesday.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson had appealed Gergel’s earlier injunctions. On Tuesday, his spokesman, J. Mark Powell, said the staff would evaluate its legal options before deciding whether to pursue any appeals on the remaining injunctions.
A coalition of immigrants and groups that represent them filed the original lawsuit against South Carolina’s law. On Thursday, they issued a press release praising Gergel’s decision to continue the injunctions on two of the three parts. And they warned police that they would be monitoring the implementation of what is known as a “papers, please” law.
Michelle Lapointe, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said plaintiffs could return to Gergel’s court if they find evidence of civil rights violations. The coalition’s advocacy groups that work in South Carolina communities will be on the lookout for instances where police detain people for too long or unnecessarily, Lapointe said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.