A Yellowstone County man who claims a judge illegally ordered his arrest is now suing that judge, and the officer who arrested him, in federal court.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Billings, Miguel Angel Reynaga Hernandez claims former Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez violated his civil rights when he ordered Cpl. Derrek Skinner to arrest him, despite the fact that Reynaga had not committed a crime.
Judge Hernandez, who served as Yellowstone County’s Justice of the Peace for more than 40 years, retired on Nov. 30, 2017. He was Montana’s longest-serving judge.
According to a Jan. 10 post on the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, Skinner retired on Jan. 9.
Calls to both the Yellowstone County Justice Court and to the sheriff’s office were not immediately returned. Personal contact information for Hernandez and Skinner was unavailable.
Reynaga’s lawyer, Matt Adams, of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the judge and the sheriff’s officer violated Reynaga’s constitutional rights by unlawfully arresting and detaining him solely for purposes of investigating his civil immigration status.
“I want to try to make it so this doesn’t happen to other people,” Reynaga said in a statement. “The courts and police should be helping people, not dividing up the communities.”
Reynaga is seeking damages and a declaratory relief from the federal court.
According to the 16-page complaint, Reynaga was attending a hearing in Hernandez’s courtroom on Oct. 2, 2017 to testify on behalf of his wife, Jana Reynaga, who was seeking a restraining order against her cousin following an alleged physical altercation. The order was later granted, Adams said.
The complaint states that Hernandez ordered Reynaga to step out of the courtroom while he listened to testimony from Jana Reynaga and her cousin, Rachel Elizondo. According to the complaint, Elizondo told the judge that Miguel Reynaga was in the country without documentation. At some point after hearing Elizondo’s claim, Hernandez instructed his assistant to call the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, stating: “Call me a deputy. I have two illegals sitting outside, I want them picked up. Call.”
Miguel Reynaga is currently applying for an immigrant visa, but he was undocumented at the time of the incident, Adams said. Jana Reynaga, Miguel’s wife, is a Billings-born U.S. citizen.
The complaint states Skinner proceeded to arrest Reynaga without a warrant and without probable cause that Reynaga had committed any crime. Violations of federal immigration laws are civil matters, not criminal.
“Neither the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office nor the Yellowstone County Justice Court have authority to enforce civil federal immigration law,” said Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
According to the complaint, Skinner’s search of Reynaga’s name in the National Crime Information Center database revealed no outstanding warrants, yet Reynaga was detained in Skinner’s patrol car while Skinner contacted federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Throughout the process, Reynaga was never given a reason for his arrest, the complaint states.
“It is particularly outrageous because Mr. Reynaga and his wife went to court seeking protection,” Adams said. “Instead, the court and sheriff’s office acted way outside of their authority, in a bungled and misguided attempt to enforce federal immigration laws. This is a sad example of the courthouse slamming its doors and denying access to justice for all.”
According to the lawsuit, Reynaga was detained at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility for six hours before immigration officials arrived to interview him.
Adams said an ICE official interrogated Reynaga at the county jail and then transferred him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., where he was placed in removal proceedings. According the lawsuit, Reynaga was held in ICE custody for more than three months before the deportation proceedings were terminated.
“Mr. Reynaga was kept locked-up over Christmas, the New Year’s holiday, and his daughter’s first birthday, until his case was ultimately dismissed,” Adams said.
Reynaga is now in the process of applying for an immigrant visa.
“We talked about whether he should come to court with me, as I was worried about what might happen,” said Jana Reynaga. “But he told me that he wanted to be there to support me, and we knew that courts were supposed to be open to everybody. The next thing we knew our family was torn apart—he was locked up hundreds of miles away and we did not know if they would let him come back.”
Adams said one of the most troubling aspects of the case is the fact that a judge went out of his way to prohibit someone from testifying in court.
“Normally what we see in jurisdictions throughout country is you have judges complaining that ICE is snooping around the courthouse and that scares people away from coming in and testifying or seeking justice,” Adams said. “This is supposed to be justice for all, and all people should have access to the courthouse. Here you have the opposite; you have the court slamming its doors on people and saying, ‘we’re going to decide who’s entitled to come here and testify or to seek justice.’”
Editor’s note: Matt Adams is of no relation to John S. Adams, the author of this report.