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Louisiana Supreme Court knocks down felony immigrant driving law

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a state law making it a felony for noncitizens to drive a motor vehicle in the state without legal documentation is unconstitutional. The state high court based its ruling, in part, on a previous ruling of the United States Supreme Court in a separate case from another state.

The law prohibiting the operation of a vehicle without lawful presence was challenged in Lafayette Parish. The case rose up to the state supreme court. The court handed down its 5-2 split decision this week. The provision required that immigrants driving a motor vehicle present proof of legal authority to be present in the United States or face a felony-level offense under Louisiana law.

The issue before the court essentially is a type of preemption argument. The Louisiana high court decided, consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent from an Arizona case, that Louisiana’s law was an improper attempt to enforce immigration law under state law. Significantly, a violation of federal law regarding documentation is a misdemeanor level offense, according to The Advocate in Baton Rouge. Louisiana’s provision made operating without proper immigration documentation a felony-level offense.

Most states define a felony through a durational measurement. In Louisiana, a misdemeanor level offense generally may be punishable by up to a year in a parish (or other local) jail. The recently struck down law regarding driving with documentation of legal presence in the United States was punishable by imprisonment for not more than one year.

But the law provided that the imprisonment could be with or without hard labor, or both. Louisiana law does not use a time-frame in defining a felony, but defines felony-level offenses as those which allow for a sentence imprisonment at hard labor (or death).

Source: The Advocate, “Driving law targeting noncitizens overturned,” Richard Burgess, Oct. 17, 2013

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