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Woman files lawsuit, claims immigration status error led to overnight stay in jail

| Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 12:04 p.m.

Police act as immigration agents at their own risk and become liable for civil rights violations when they make mistakes, an attorney for a West Mifflin woman said on Tuesday.

Angelica Davila, 28, claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Tuesday that she was held illegally overnight in the Allegheny County Jail. The lawsuit names Northern Regional Police officers, the board that oversees the multi-municipality department, a federal immigration official and the county.

The incident started when Officer Andrew Bienemann stopped Davila in Pine for driving at night with her headlights off on Jan. 22, 2011.

Vic Walczak, state legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the incident should have ended with a warning or a ticket for the infraction. Davila had a valid state driver's license, so Bienemann had no reason other than her appearance and slight accent to question and detain Davila over immigration status, Walczak said.

“You can't detain someone beyond the reason for the stop,” he said.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman declined comment. Police Chief Robert Amann and county Solicitor Andrew Szefi couldn't be reached for comment.

Walczak said most large police departments have policies specifically ordering officers not to question people about their immigration status.

Allentown and the federal government each paid $25,000 to settle a similar 2010 lawsuit over the three-day detention of a New Jersey-born man of Puerto Rican descent, Walczak said.

Davila was born in Mexico. Her father was born a U.S. citizen and her mother became a naturalized citizen in 1997, the lawsuit says. Davila has been a citizen since 2001.

Special Agent Brianna Tetrault, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, compounded the problem by mistakenly determining that Davila was in the country illegally and asking Bienemann to jail her, the lawsuit says.

Although Tetrault later discovered Davila was a U.S. citizen and told Bienemann within a few hours of Davila's arrest, she remained in jail until the next morning, the lawsuit says.

A passenger in Davila's car was in the country illegally and was deported to Honduras, the lawsuit says.

In addition to Bienemann, Tetrault and police Sgt. John Sicilia, Davila is suing Allegheny County.

Walczak said the county has a practice of “reflexively” honoring requests from ICE to detain people the agency suspects are in the country illegally even though the requests, unlike criminal arrest warrants, aren't based on a judge's order. By holding Davila without determining whether there was probable cause to jail her, the county violated her civil rights, he said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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