For the first time, a group of detainees accused of immigration violations will be given the right to legal counsel.
A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that authorities must provide detainees facing deportation with an attorney if they're found incapable of representing themselves due to mental illness.
Because immigration court is not part of the criminal justice system, defendants are normally required to hire their own lawyer or represent themselves.
Judge Dolly M. Gee also ruled that mentally disabled detainees should be given a bond hearing to avoid unnecessary long-term detention.
Sean Riordan, staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the ruling would provide "a critical protection" to mentally disabled individuals facing deportation proceedings.
"We're talking about a group of people who often have such severe impairments that there's no possible way that they could represent their interests adequately in court," said Riordan, who worked on the class action lawsuit that spawned the ruling.
The ACLU and other groups sued the government three years ago on behalf of six mentally disabled detainees in Arizona, California and Washington. One of the plaintiffs, Jose Antonio Franco, was held in immigration detention centers in California for four and a half years after authorities determined he was mentally incapable of representing himself in immigration court.
"It's clear in those cases that the indefinite detention they were suffering under wasn't even necessary," Riordan said. "It was just sort of a matter of administrative ease or the bureaucracy of the immigration detention system."
Riordan said the judge's decision ordering bond hearings for mentally ill detainees after six months in custody would prevent such situations.
The judge's ruling came just a day after Justice Department and immigration authorities announced they would begin evaluating detainees with mental illnesses to determine their ability to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.
Authorities also announced that they would appoint counsel to those determined mentally incompetent.
Nevertheless, Riordan said the judge's ruling was important to solidify the policy change.
"Without the court's order the government would have been free to change its mind," Riordan said.
Immigration authorities hadn't responded to the judge's ruling or to a request for comment by midday Wednesday. The government can appeal the ruling.
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