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Appeals court rules man can’t sue U.S. over improper incarceration

A U.S. citizen from Jamaica who was improperly held in immigration detention for more than three years has no right to sue the government, a divided Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled on Monday in a decision that drew a stinging dissent from the chief judge.

Even the majority said Davino Watson’s imprisonment was “botched” by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but nonetheless concluded malicious prosecution and negligence claims had technical flaws and his false imprisonment suit was barred by the statute of limitations.

“It is arresting and disturbing that an American citizen was detained for years in immigration proceedings while facing deportation,” said Judge Dennis Jacobs, “but Watson’s claims for damages are foreclosed by precedent.”

Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, the dissenter in the 2-1 ruling, said an immigration detainee’s chances of resisting deportation are five times greater with a lawyer, and laid responsibility for an injustice in Watson’s case at the feet of a system that provides no legal assistance to detainees.

“I am hopeful that one day soon no immigrant or citizen will be forced to go through a predicament like Watson’s without the assistance of counsel to help vindicate his cause,” Katzmann wrote.

Watson, now 32, of Brooklyn, came to live in New York with his dad when he was 13, the court said, and automatically became a citizen when his father was naturalized. But in 2008, immediately after his release from a term of shock-incarceration on a state drug charge, he was detained by ICE.

Initially, ICE officials didn’t believe his claims that he was a citizen and misidentified his parents when investigating, the court said, and then they erred interpreting new cases dealing with the interplay of New York, Jamaican and federal law on citizenship of a child of unmarried parents.

After he was finally released in 2011, Watson sued, and U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn federal court awarded him $82,000. But the Second Circuit ruling knocked out that award.

The court said Watson couldn’t sue for malicious prosecution because that requires a showing of malice, not just incompetence, and a negligence claim for a bad investigation and ICE’s failure to follow its regulations is not recognized in New York State.

The three-year statute of limitations on false imprisonment, the court said, began in 2008 — while Watson, who hadn’t finished high school, was in custody without a lawyer and misinformed about the law by the government — and expired by the time he got out, got a lawyer and sued.

Jacobs said lack of education isn’t a basis to waive the limitations period, and the fact that Watson continued to fight his case on his own without a lawyer was evidence that he hadn’t been influenced by the government’s incorrect insistence that the law barred his citizenship.

Katzmann called the result “a striking illustration of the consequences that stem from the government’s broad discretion to initiate detention and removal proceedings, coupled with the sometimes limited ability even a U.S. citizen has . . . in the absence of the assistance of counsel.”

Mark Flessner, Watson’s lawyer, said he is likely to ask the full Second Circuit court to review the ruling, and advocates said it highlighted the need for more access to lawyers in immigration proceedings.

Mary McCarthy, director of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, said that only 14 percent of deportation detainees have lawyers, and many face severe consequences if they are sent home.

“When you’re talking about clients seeking asylum, they could be persecuted, abused, tortured and killed,” she said. “I often think of these cases as death penalty cases.”

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