The Washington State Supreme Court recently announced a new rule that will make evidence of immigration status "generally inadmissible" in criminal and civil proceedings.
Proponents of the rule say that it increases the likelihood that people will receive a fair trial, regardless of immigration status. They also hope it will help remove barriers for people who might be afraid to participate in criminal or civil proceedings due to their immigration status.
This rule appears to be the first of its kind in the nation. It will go into effect in September 2018.
The "Prejudicial Nature" of Evidence of Immigration Status
The Washington court rule notes that evidence of immigration status may be "prejudicial."
Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services agrees. When he spoke to the Seattle Times, he said:
“If you have immigration status evidence, that is such a volatile issue, especially today, that it can overtake people's views," and juries may "make decisions on an emotional reaction instead of what the court has told them the law and facts are.”
The Seattle Times uses the case of Alex Salas to highlight just how prejudicial immigration status information can be. Salas sued a scaffolding company for negligence that resulted in severe injuries when he fell from a ladder on a construction site.
In 2006, a jury decided that the company was negligent, but did not award Salas any monetary damages. After a number of appeals, a King County jury awarded Salas $2.6 million for his injuries in 2015. The facts of Salas's case were the same both times.
So, what was the difference? In 2006, the jury heard that Salas was in the U.S. illegally. In 2015, the jury did not hear any evidence of Salas's immigration status.
Because evidence of immigration status can be prejudicial, the new law makes evidence of immigration status inadmissible in criminal proceedings unless it is an "essential fact" to:
- Prove an element of, or a defense to, a crime; or
- To show bias or prejudice of a witness
Non-Citizen Residents Accused of Crimes in Washington
While the new rule may make it easier for immigrants to receive a fair criminal or civil trial in Washington, it does not affect any of the state's strict laws regarding treatment of immigrants who are convicted of crimes.
Non-citizen residents (including H-1 visa holders, green card holders, and permanent residents) may face deportation and other disastrous consequences if they are convicted of a crime.