After police shot the wrong man, city's lawyer argues man didn't have constitutional rights because he was undocumented

A lawsuit about a police shooting victim is prompting constitutional questions.

September 30, 2019, 6:01 PM

No one is disputing that police killed the wrong man when they were looking for someone else.

They are arguing about whether the now-deceased man had any constitutional rights because the victim was an undocumented immigrant.

The legal drama is playing out in Mississippi following the July 27, 2017, shooting death of Ismael Lopez.

The lawyers for his widow and his estate have argued that the case amounts to a violation of his constitutional rights, and the attorneys for the city of Southaven, Miss., argue that Lopez had no such rights.

Murray Wells, the attorney for Lopez’s widow, told ABC News that a lengthy investigation and a fight over the accessibility of the results of that investigation were a factor in why this civil rights claim is being waged now, two years after the incident itself.

He said the case was presented to a grand jury who determined that no criminal charges were to be filed, so Wells and his associates filed a civil rights action claiming that Lopez’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.

Ismael Lopez and Claudia Linares are pictured in this photo released by her attorney.
Courtesy of Murray Wells

Those amendments were highlighted because the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fourteenth Amendment provides equal protections for all citizens under the law.

In a court document filed earlier this month, attorney Katherine Kerby, who is representing the police officer involved in the shooting and the city, argued that Lopez "had no Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment rights."

"There is no jurisdiction based on the absence of any legally recognized relationship of Ismael Lopez with the United States at the time of his death. In the alternative, there is no standing by either Plaintiff due to the illegal alien status of Lopez at the time of his death in tandem with his insufficient connections with the United States of the type, dignity, and caliber required for standing," the motion states.

Wells told ABC News that he was "pretty disgusted" by the claim.

"It’s also repugnant. The idea that she's going to interpret the constitution in a way that excludes non-citizen residents flies in the face of the whole purpose of the due process and the Constitution," Wells said.

Court documents show that the city’s legal team pointed to two prior deportations where Lopez was sent to Mexico, alleged he had prior arrests and said he had an outstanding warrant, all as part of their case arguing that he would not be entitled to Constitutional protections.

The attorney for Southaven did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.

Linares and the representative for Lopez’s estate filed a civil rights claim in June seeking $20 million in damages for his wrongful death.

Claudia Linares, left, the widow of Ismael Lopez, pictured with one of her attorneys recently.
Courtesy of Murray Wells

Wells said that he could not confirm any of the alleged arrests or deportations, noting how he did not meet Lopez before his death, but said that should any such records exist that would not preclude someone from having Constitutional rights. He said that the decision made by the district court would have implications beyond this individual case, however.

"When a door gets opened just a little bit, there are people who will step through. I also think it emboldens people who may harbor hate or resentment to undocumented residents and believe now that they have the authority to violate their rights because they have none and that's the really really scary thing about this," Wells said. "If this one slips through the cracks somehow, it is a chilling erosion on our Constitution, and I think there are people in today's climate who would want that."

Representatives for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union agree.

"It is well-settled and long-standing law that all persons in the United States, including undocumented immigrants, have the protections of the U.S. Constitution including the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to equal protection and the Fourth Amendment’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures," Joshua Tom, Legal Director and Interim Director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said in a statement to ABC News.

"This fact is uncontroversial, and any statement to the contrary is simply wrong. Southaven’s argument has no basis in existing law and is frivolous and potentially sanctionable under federal rules of procedure. We urge the City of Southaven to uphold our country’s laws," Tom said.