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Louisiana Appellate Court Rules Undocumented Law Unconstitutional

By Corey Licht, Esq. on May 07, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last week, a Louisiana appellate court struck down a state law making it illegal for non-citizens to drive without documents proving they’re legally in the United States. Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the statute improperly governs an area of law exclusively controlled by the federal government.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of a similar Arizona law last year. While that law made it a misdemeanor for immigrants to drive without documentation, the Louisiana law goes one step further making it a felony offense. The appellate court’s ruling conflicts with a recent First Circuit Court of Appeal decision upholding the “unlawful presence” law.

Alexis Sarrabea, a 30-year-old Honduran, was pulled over in Lafayette Parish. While Sarrabea's immigration status isn't stated in the opinion, he was arrested for unlawful presence under La.R.S. 14:100.13.

The law makes it a crime for any "alien student" or "nonresident alien" to operate a motor vehicle in the state without documentation demonstrating their lawful presence in the country. If a driver fails to produce documentation, the law requires police to seize the driver's license and notify the INS. Violations of the statute carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

Sarrabea entered a no-contest plea, but reserved the right to appeal a number of issues regarding the constitutionality of the statute. On appeal, Sarrabea argued that the statute is preempted by federal law, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, is over broad and vague, and potentially violates the Eighth Amendment.

The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal closely followed the Supreme Court's reasoning in Arizona v. United States. In that case, the Court held that where Congress occupies an entire area of the law, as it does with alien registration, "even a complementary state regulation is impermissible." According to the court of appeal, the Louisiana law was not just complementary, but actually undermined federal law by imposing harsher penalties for the same crime.

The court noted that the law in Arizona "only made the offense a misdemeanor" -- as it is under federal law -- but was held unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause because it imposed stricter penalties than federal law. The Louisiana law, on the other hand, goes even further, making it a felony offense to drive without documentation.

As a result, the appellate court held that the Louisiana law is preempted by federal law and that the state lacks the authority to enforce it. Sarrabea's conviction was reversed.

The ruling is at odds with a March decision by the state's First Circuit Court of Appeal upholding the law. The matter is likely to go before the state Supreme Court sometime in the near future. Until then, 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, who handled the Sarrabea case, says he may hold off on moving forward with any "unlawful presence" cases, according to the Advocate.

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