Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Lopez-Mendoza

The Case: U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutional rights of undocumented immigrants

Date: Decided on July 5, 1984

Significance: The Lopez-Mendoza decision upheld very minimal application of Fourth Amendment rights to deportation proceedings, thereby allowing immigration officials to use some improperly acquired evidence when deciding whether noncitizens should be expelled from the country.

In 1976 and 1977, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials arrested Adan Lopez- Mendoza and Elias Sandoval-Sanchez, respectively, at their place of employment. Authorities disregarded rules based on the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. After both men admitted to INS officials that they had unlawfully entered the country fromMexico, their deportation was ordered in separate proceedings. On administrative appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed the orders, ruling that because a deportation proceeding is a civil action, the mere fact of an illegal arrest is irrelevant to a deportation order. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and held that the confessions, as fruit of an unlawful arrest, should be suppressed as customary in the exclusionary rule.

By a 5-4 majority, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule do not apply in deportation proceedings. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made four major arguments. First, the BIA was correct in asserting that the protections in criminal trials do not apply to civil actions. Second, the INS maintains an adequate oversight program for monitoring compliance with Fourth Amendment requirements. Third, deportation hearings, unlike criminal trials, have the function of stopping the continuation of an illegal situation, and the social costs of releasing a defendant whose mere presence in the country violated the law would be excessive in comparison to the minimal benefits of the exclusionary rule in such contexts. Finally, O’Connor affirmed that the federal courts continued to have the authority to exercise judicial review of any egregious actions of immigration officials. Justices William J. Brennan and Byron R. White both wrote strong dissenting opinions.

Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading

  • Aleinikoff, Thomas A., et al. Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy. 6th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2008. 
  • McFeatters, Ann C. Sandra Day O’Connor: Justice in the Balance. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. 

See also: Citizenship; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Deportation; Due process protections; Illegal immigration; Immigration law; Supreme Court, U.S.

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