If you can get past the border guards and into the United States, you’re no longer violating the law, according to a Kansas Court of Appeals decision.
The ruling comes after an illegal immigrant, Nicholas Martinez, was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine and endangering a child. Court documents say Martinez was caught in an undercover sting by detectives in Barton County, Kansas (about 120 miles northwest of Wichita), using his young son to help sell cocaine.
Under Kansas law, the charges (and plea bargain) would have landed Martinez on probation. But the judge in the case said the defendant couldn’t be put on probation because of his immigration status.
But on appeal, a three-judge panel threw out the sentence, based on an apparent contradiction in U.S. law. While it is illegal to enter the country without the proper documents and permissions, it is not necessarily illegal to be in the country.
In its opinion, the court explained that Congress had implicitly created the distinction: “While Congress has criminalized the illegal entry into this country, it has not made the continued presence of an illegal alien in the United States a crime unless the illegal alien has previously been deported,” said the opinion.
The court also cited previous cases, including a 1958 Supreme Court case, which found that laws regarding illegal entry into the country “are not continuing ones, as ‘entry’ is limited to a particular locality and hardly suggests continuity.”
[Barton County Attorney Douglas] Matthews said this is one of if not the first time this issue has been brought before a Kansas court, though similar cases have been heard in Oregon and Minnesota with similar results. He said he doesn’t necessarily believe the ruling will have far-reaching effects, as the language of the opinion was extremely narrow.
“The Court narrowed the conditions under which (Martinez) could be imprisoned for his violation of Kansas law,” said Matthews. “The mere fact that you’re in Kansas illegally does not mean, at least according to this opinion, that one of our District Court judges can impose a prison sentence as opposed to probation after you’ve been convicted of a felony offense.”
Prosecutors have 30 days to appeal the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court.