“It’s everybody; if you’re out there driving, you better make sure you have your license and it’s valid,” said Campbell, who is responsible for setting bonds and court dates for every person charged under the new law within 48 hours of the arrest. “Because if it’s not valid, you can and will go to jail.”
Confusing. That’s how law enforcers across Calhoun County have described Alabama’s new immigration law. It’s also why officials with the Anniston, Jacksonville and Oxford police departments say they haven’t really charged anyone under the law yet. Locally, only the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office has been actively charging people under the new statute’s provisions, county court officials said.
The new law was partly upheld by a federal judge’s preliminary ruling Sept. 29. In her decision, U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn approved the part of the law that allows police to arrest and detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Despite that green light, neither Anniston nor Oxford police have arrested anyone under the statute.
Jacksonville officers have arrested just one man for being in the country illegally, police Chief Tommy Thompson said.
“And that was on the first day it went through,” Thompson said. But since then, Jacksonville officers haven't had any opportunities to arrest people under the new law. Law enforcers are also hesitant to make arrests, the Jacksonville police chief said, because they haven't been sure exactly how and when to apply the law.
That will change now, though. Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh held two training sessions last week for officers who had questions about the immigration law.
Thompson and Anniston Lt. Fred Forsythe said law enforcers from across the county attended the Tuesday and Thursday meetings to help clear up some of their confusion.
At the training, McVeigh walked officers through which parts of the law they are allowed to enforce now and which parts are still involved in litigation and blocked by court decisions, Forsythe said.
“It prepared us for what could happen depending on which way the courts rule,” Forsythe said. In the meantime, law enforcers said they will enforce the part of the law that allows police to detain people who don't have a valid Alabama license after they've committed some other type of violation.
“I guess you could say we're all half-heartedly enforcing it,” Thompson said. “I don't think it's going to get any less confusing until the courts are done with it.”
Changes and more changes
Federal judges like Blackburn and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta have blocked some parts of the law while allowing other sections to pass unchallenged.
“Dealing with the new immigration law has been horrible, because it’s changing daily,” said Campbell, the magistrate. “Every day, it’s like, ‘OK. So what do I do now?’ Everyone is looking at it differently.”
For example, in her September decision, Blackburn upheld the provision that police could arrest Alabama residents for illegally living in the state. But last month a federal appeals court overturned that decision, stating that it is unlawful to charge someone for being in the state illegally because being in the state illegally is already a federal crime.
Still, that decision on appeal didn’t affect the part of the law that allows police to detain people who cannot provide proof of their identities or who drive without a license.
“But no action related to that law has been taken,” Anniston police Capt. Richard Smith said. “We want to get clarification.”
Officials want to know what kind of guidelines to give their officers when they make a traffic stop and are confronted with a person who doesn’t have identification.
John Schremser, the state Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said officers should make a good-faith effort to determine whether that driver has a valid license or proof of residency.
Whether to arrest the driver, Schremser said, is up to the discretion of the officer.
“Each individual local law-enforcement agency (is) supposed to develop the best way to do that for their area,” Schremser said.
After attending last week's training sessions, Forsythe said Anniston police will make efforts to determine whether a license-less driver has a valid state ID.
Officers can do that, Forsythe said, by obtaining identification information from the driver and running that information on the police car laptops.
But even if that information checks out, the driver can be arrested and taken into custody for driving without a license, Forsythe said.
“We haven’t been given any direction on whether to custodially arrest people or just cite people, yet,” the Anniston lieutenant said.
He noted police and the district attorney are waiting for state Attorney General Luther Strange to release an opinion about that.
Schremser said the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission plans to release a set of standards for police officers to follow when enforcing the law.
“A lot of it is common sense,” Smith said. “But we’re still exploring it.”
While Anniston explores, Calhoun County deputies have been arresting people for not having their licenses, according to public records and court officials.
Under the law, anyone who is pulled over and driving without a valid license can be arrested and jailed without bond until a magistrate sees them and sets bond. Campbell said deputies have brought “about a dozen” people to her for their mandatory hearings, when Campbell gives them bond amounts and sets court dates for rulings on their citizenship statuses.
Multiple attempts in the past two weeks to reach Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson about his office’s enforcement of the immigration law were unsuccessful. But a survey of arrest reports obtained from the Sheriff’s Office this month shows at least 13 people have been arrested on charges based on the new law. Nine of those 13 people were charged with the misdemeanor crime of failure to possess and display their driver’s licenses. Three of them were arrested for driving while having a revoked or suspended license.
One man, Hobson City resident Jose Luis Juarez, was charged with a violation of the immigration law, a police report shows. Several of the reports list Anniston or other U.S. birthplaces for those charged.
A news release posted on the sheriff’s website briefly addresses the protocol used by deputies when enforcing it.
“We are to make ‘a reasonable attempt’ to determine lawful presence” of a person that a deputy has first pulled over in a traffic stop or observed breaking some other type of law, the release states.
“If it cannot be determined that a person encountered has a valid license, he shall be carried before a magistrate as soon as one is available,” the release reads. “As a practical matter, this means they shall be placed in jail.”
Campbell emphasized that once a person is arrested and put in jail under the new law, he or she must remain there until Campbell can make time for the hearing, which has to happen within 48 hours of the arrest. That means a legal resident could remain in jail for as long as two days without chance for bond, the magistrate noted.
“Because the arresting officers aren’t allowed to give them a bond,” Campbell said. “I have to do that.”
As she mentioned before, Campbell said she has seen both legal residents and others she suspects are illegal come before her in the past month.
“It’s a stressful situation,” she said. “I want to do the right thing; I want to do the legal thing.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.