An Allentown, Pa., man who was jailed for three days after police and federal agents mistook him for an undocumented immigrant has settled his lawsuit against the United States for $25,000, according to his lawyers.
The settlement for Ernesto Galarza, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent, is a victory against racial profiling and immigration procedures that have resulted in similar wrongful detentions around the country, said his attorney, Mary Catherine Roper of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
However, Galarza's claims against the Allentown police officer who arrested him and reported him as a possible illegal immigrant have yet to be resolved. Attorney Andrew Adair, who represents the city, said he could not comment on the case and Jerry Snyder, the city solicitor, did not return a call.
Roper said Galarza's case is one of a number that have prompted scrutiny of the procedures U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials use to instruct local law enforcement officials to hold individuals who are suspected of being in the country illegally.
While ICE has acted on its own to correct problems that led to Galarza's detention, Roper said the system still places too much power in the hands of individual immigration agents without an opportunity for review by higher authorities.
"We generally don't give police officers the power to put someone behind bars without it being reviewed by a magistrate," Roper said. "Unfortunately, the immigration system is set up not to follow that pretty basic protection."
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the case because claims are still pending against the city. A call to the public affairs office for ICE was not returned.
Galarza was arrested Nov. 19, 2008, after Allentown police detective Christie Correa bought cocaine from Galarza's co-worker at an Allentown construction site. Galarza and three other men were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, of which Galarza was later acquitted, and taken to Lehigh County Prison.
Although Galarza gave his place of birth as Perth Amboy, N.J., and had his Pennsylvania driver's license, bank card, health insurance card and Social Security card in his wallet, Correa told ICE agents that she believed all four men had provided false information about their identities and were foreign nationals, court papers say.
Based on the information that Correa provided, ICE agent Mark Szalczyk sent a detainer to the Lehigh County Prison instructing officials not to release Galarza, even though he had posted bail on the drug charge.
As a result, court papers say, Galarza was held in Lehigh County Prison from Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, until the following Monday, Nov. 24, when he was interviewed by ICE agents and released after again providing his Social Security number and date of birth.
Galarza sued Szalczyk, fellow ICE agent Greg Marino, Correa, the city of Allentown and Lehigh County, alleging he was wrongly held in prison because he was arrested in the company of three other men who did not appear to be U.S. citizens.
The suit claimed that Correa reported Galarza to ICE because he appeared to be Hispanic and that if Szalczyk had bothered to verify the Social Security number Galarza provided, he would have seen that Galarza was a U.S. citizen.
In a March 30 decision, U.S. District Judge James Knoll Gardner dismissed Galarza's claims against Marino, finding that he merely passed information from Correa to Szalczyk and had no reason to suspect it was inaccurate. He also dismissed Galarza's claims against Lehigh County, finding that prison officials were simply complying with federal requirements.
Gardner also dismissed claims against Allentown and Correa that the city's procedures for reporting undocumented immigrants to federal authorities violated his constitutional rights. However, Gardner allowed his claims that Correa violated his constitutional rights to protection against unreasonable search and seizure and equal protection under the law.
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