Ninth Circuit to Hear Case Against Officers Who Detained a U.S. Citizen, Veteran for Seven Months

Kevin P. Casey
Rennison Castillo kept telling officers that he was a U.S. citizen
Imagine you, as an American citizen, were plucked from normal life and taken to a detention facility for illegal immigrants. Now, imagine that it took seven and a half months for immigration officials to figure out that--as you said all along-- you were not only a citizen, but one who had honorably served in the U.S. Army.

Should there be any consequences for the officials who kept you in this Kafkaesque state? That question is at the heart of a case shortly to be heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Castillo was held at the Northwest Detention Center
The case concerns a Belize native named Rennison Castillo who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 7 and became an American citizen while serving in the Army in 1998. The Lakewood resident is no angel. He has served time for an array of domestic violence charges. But that doesn't explain what happened to him in 2005, when he was finishing up an eight-month sentence for violating a protection order.

As SW wrote wrote about in a 2008 story, Castillo caught the attention of a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official on a routine check for illegal immigrants at the Pierce County jail. Although Castillo says he told the official, one Linda Swarski, that he was an American citizen, she didn't believe him. He was subsequently brought to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where for the next seven and a half months he kept repeating that he was an American citizen. No one believed him there either until he finally got the documentation that proved his story.

In November 2008, Castillo filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington against Swarski and four other immigration officials who handled his case, charging that they violated his Constitutional rights to freedom and due process. The officers, represented by the U.S. Attorney's office, claimed that Castillo had not provided sufficient facts to prove that his rights were violated and moved to dismiss the case.

Last December, Judge Benjamin Settle ruled that the case against all the officers barring one (a supervisor) would go on. He noted that the facts were plain: Castillo "was a United States citizen and that he was detained by ICE."

The judge also refused an alternate request by the officers for summary judgment based on their claim to immunity because of their role as federal officials. Immunity is only granted to government officials who "acted reasonably under the circumstances," Settle wrote, and that is a matter of dispute given Castillo's allegation that the officers neglected to make any "competent" effort to ascertain whether the man in their charge was in fact a citizen.

On Monday, the officers filed an appeal of that decision with the Ninth Circuit. It's a timely moment for this influential court to weigh in on the subject. President Barak Obama and Congress are shortly expected to take up immigration law reform, and a hot topic is how to deal with (allegedly) illegal immigrants already in this country. President George W. Bush's strategy was to detain and deport as many as possible. But as this suit shows, as does other cases SW has written about, people got locked up who shouldn't have been.

Matt Adams, Castillo's attorney and legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, says he hopes the Ninth Circuit's ruling will "send a message to the government: 'Look, you have to be more cautious. We're going to hold you accountable.' "

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