SEATTLE (AP) — A Mexican immigrant who was nearly deported after a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyer forged a document in his case brought about change by suing over the misconduct.
Ignacio Lanuza’s lawsuit helped prompt a criminal investigation that sent the lawyer to jail, established legal precedent concerning constitutional rights during immigration proceedings and resulted in a small settlement from the lawyer.
But the case failed to hold the federal government liable for its lawyer’s actions. The Justice Department now wants Lanuza, a 42-year-old Seattle construction worker, and his attorneys to pay for legal fees and costs that will likely top $100,000.
In documents filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin says the government should be able to recoup its costs because Lanuza’s claim of malicious prosecution was frivolous.
“Plaintiff’s counsel were misguided in their overly zealous pursuit of plaintiff’s futile claim,” Durkin wrote.
Lanuza’s attorneys with the nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project wrote in a response this week that Durkin’s filing appeared designed “to disparage and harass Mr. Lanuza and his counsel.”
They conceded that they lost their argument but said it was creative, good-faith lawyering, not an abuse of the judicial process.
“The U.S. attorney now vindictively seeks sanctions against plaintiff, as if the federal government begrudges plaintiff for forcing the government to hold one of its federal officials accountable for his corrupt actions,” they wrote.
Lanuza had been arrested on a gun charge and was in deportation proceedings in 2009 when Jonathan M. Love, ICE’s then-assistant chief counsel in Seattle, forged a document purporting to show that Lanuza had voluntarily agreed to return to Mexico in 2000.
An immigration judge ordered Lanuza deported based on the form, and the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld the decision.
In 2011, Lanuza’s new attorney realized the form was a fake: Its letterhead said, “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” — a federal agency that didn’t exist in 2000, when the document was dated.
After the forgery was discovered, an immigration judge granted Lanuza permanent resident status, allowing him to remain in the U.S. with his wife and two children, who are all American citizens.
Lanuza sued Love and the federal government in 2014, accusing the lawyer of violating his constitutional right to due process. He made several claims against the government, including malicious prosecution and infliction of emotional distress.
A judge dismissed Lanuza’s claim against Love, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that in a precedent-setting decision. The appeals court ruling made clear that immigrants can obtain damages from individual federal officials for constitutional violations during immigration proceedings.
Love agreed to pay Lanuza $6,250 to settle his part of the civil rights lawsuit. As part of a federal criminal prosecution, Love also had been sentenced to a month in jail, ordered to give up his law license for a decade and made to reimburse Lanuza $12,000.
The judge dismissed all but one of Lanuza’s claims against the government, saying the two-year statute of limitations had expired. Only one remained: malicious prosecution.
The Justice Department demanded Lanuza’s lawyers drop that claim, saying it could only apply to “investigative or law enforcement officers” and that Love did not fit that description.
Lanuza’s lawyers said that in fabricating evidence, Love was acting in an investigative capacity, so the government should have to pay up.
Another judge, who took over the case in 2016, sided with the government and dismissed the claim last month. It’s not clear how soon the judge might rule on the Justice Department’s motion for legal fees.