State lawmakers gave final approval Monday to legislation designed to help two Southern Arizona ranchers escape paying at least part of what courts said they owe to illegal immigrants they were found guilty of harming.
HB 2191 would prohibit anyone in this country illegally from collecting punitive damages even if they win a lawsuit. The bill now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer.
Technically speaking, that already is the law in Arizona. Voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment spelling out exactly the same provisions.
But this measure is designed to be retroactive to the beginning of 2004 to help those whose legal problems began before the state constitution was changed.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the move is legal.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, pointed out it took a constitutional change to make punitive damages off limits. That is because other constitutional provisions generally preclude legislators from limiting the right to sue and collect for damages.
But Sinema, who is an attorney, noted this measure seeks to alter what was in effect in 2004 through 2006 with a change in statute only.
One of the beneficiaries would be Roger Barnett who was sued following a 2004 incident when 16 illegal immigrants said the rancher illegally imprisoned them. A jury gave four of the plaintiffs $60,000 in punitive damages.
The other is Casey Nethercott. A member of Ranch Rescue which works to protect private property along the southern U.S. border, he was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of two immigrants.
When he did not respond to the lawsuit, a Texas judge ordered him to pay $500,000, including punitive damages. To settle that debt, a Cochise judge in 2006 gave the two immigrants title to the 60-acre ranch near Douglas.
State Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said lawmakers put the 2006 measure on the ballot directly in response to Barnett's legal problems. But he said legislators were unaware that its provisions would come too late to help him.
Weiers has defended the change.
``How incredibly silly that you've got people breaking the law, trespassing, doing this and that on personal property, and then you're handed punitive damage awards,'' he said.