A federal judge ruled Thursday that South Carolina police can check the immigration background of a person they stop for a traffic violation. However, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel did not allow other parts of a state immigration law passed last year to take effect.
Gov. Nikki Haley signed the law passed by the South Carolina General Assembly last year, but the U.S. Justice Department sued to prevent it from taking effect. Judge Gergel blocked the law in December.
The part of the law getting the most attention, known as “Section 6,” would allow law enforcement officers to check a person’s immigration status during a traffic stop if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. An officer must initiate the traffic stop for another reason, the law states.
Justice Department officials say immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have also been involved in the case, saying they worry the law will encourage racial profiling.
This summer, the Supreme Court upheld a similar background check provision in Arizona, although the justices struck down other sections of that law. With the Supreme Court’s decision in mind, Gergel said he would reconsider his December ruling this week.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson praised Thursday’s ruling, “This action is a significant victory for South Carolina’s law enforcement community. Lifting the injunction on Section 6 means police officers and sheriff’s deputies now have an important tool to assist them in doing their job and for protecting South Carolinians. ”
But Gergel made it clear that other parts of the South Carolina law could not take effect, including a section that would have made it a state crime (on top of a federal crime) to be in South Carolina illegally. Gergel did previously clear another section of the law that requires all businesses to use a federal database for new hires.
The law’s opponents also claimed victory. “The court reaffirmed that it would be unconstitutional for state and local officers to detain individuals on the basis of their status alone and left open the door to future challenges involving civil rights abuses under this law, said ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Division staff attorney Andre Segura. “We will continue to closely monitor the law’s enforcement in order to ensure a person’s basic rights are protected.”