published Friday, August 15th, 2014

Immigrants seek ruling that federal agents violated their rights in Nashville

NASHVILLE — When federal immigration agents surrounded a south Nashville apartment and began banging on doors, the men inside were within their rights to turn off the lights and refuse to answer. The officers did not have warrants, either to search the apartment or to arrest anyone inside, according to court documents.

But that didn't stop two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from going in through a bedroom window and then opening the door for other agents and arresting everyone they found.

Five Hispanic men who were in the apartment on Oct. 20, 2010 are some of the 14 plaintiffs now suing ICE over what they claim was a raid meant to rid the Clairmont Apartments complex of Hispanic residents.

The defendants deny those claims, saying they were conducting knock-and-talks to gather information about gang violence and threats against management, according to court documents.

Which version is correct will be one of many issues decided at a December trial, but on Friday the plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell, in Nashville, to go ahead and rule on some things that happened that day.

They want him to declare that the officers who came through the window violated the residents' Fourth Amendment rights. And they want a similar declaration against ICE officers who surrounded a car and questioned the four men inside, also without a warrant.

All nine men were later charged with civil immigration violations, according to court documents.

Meanwhile, ICE is asking the judge to dismiss all claims against the agents, saying they acted appropriately.

Stephen McCormick, the ICE officer who first went through the bedroom window, says in depositions that the people in the apartment were under no obligation to open their doors. But McCormick says he had to enter the apartment because when he shined his flashlight through the window, he saw someone who matched a description he was given of a suspected gang member — a Hispanic man in his 20s with long, stringy hair.

As it turned out, the person McCormick saw through the window was not the suspect.

But defendants' attorneys say in court documents that the officer's decision to go through the window "was pursuant to a good faith belief that ... life and death consequences could hang in the balance if he hesitated."

They also argue that officers had a right to stop and question a group of men who had just gotten into their car because the officers believed that some of the men had come from an apartment suspected of being associated with gang activity. They had actually come from a different apartment.

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