You're driving down a South Carolina highway with a broken taillight and an officer pulls you over. While he's writing a ticket, he also suspects that you might not be in this country legally.
What happens next will soon change.
In 2011, state lawmakers passed a law requiring law enforcement to check the legal status of those they stop, but U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel had blocked that provision from taking effect.
On Thursday, five months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld such checks in Arizona's new immigration law, Gergel reversed course.
However, Gergel's ruling notes that it still is illegal for officers to stop people solely to check their immigration status, or to detain them for more than “a reasonable amount of time as allowed by law” while such checks are being made.
It can take 81 minutes to run an immigration inquiry, according to an S.C. Law Enforcement Support Center affidavit, so it's possible officers might have to release some people before that inquiry is finished.
Many Lowcountry law enforcement agencies still are waiting for further specifics as to what this all means.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said Thursday that his department will seek direction from the state.
“Obviously, the judge lifted the injunction, but there were still a lot of questions left there as far as how exactly you're going to do an inquiry and what happens if that's not done in a certain amount of time,” he said.
“We don't want to create a situation where we're alienating the community we're trying to work with and establish relationships with.”
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson called the ruling “a significant victory” that “means police officers and sheriff's deputies now have an important tool to assist them in doing their job and for protecting South Carolinians.”
The Attorney General's Office plans to meet soon with members of the state's law enforcement community to talk about implementing the law, spokesman Mark Plowden said.
Lowcountry law enforcement officials apparently plan to wait for that further advice.
“Obviously, once the issue is fleshed out and the attorney general and the (S.C. Criminal Justice) Academy give us advice on the impact of the law, then we would look at incorporating the changes,” Charleston County sheriff's Maj. Jim Brady said. “At this point, nothing would change the way we're currently operating.”
Opponents of the immigration law, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center, noted that much of the law remains blocked.
“While today's decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina in Charleston leaves room for implementation of a 'show me your papers' provision, it invites future challenges involving lengthy detentions and other civil rights issues,” their joint statement said.
Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Gergel's ruling “sends a message that South Carolinians will not be criminalized for being good neighbors and that targeting people based solely on their race will not be tolerated.”
Gergel reconsidered his injunction in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June, but the bulk of the legal issues involved in the law ultimately will be fought out before the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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