State senators voted 26-1 Thursday to let prosecutors hold smuggled illegal immigrants for up to a week without bringing criminal charges against them.
But the aim is not to punish them, said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson. Rather, it is designed to ensure their help in prosecuting those who helped them enter the country illegally, he said.
The problem, Paton said, is that it’s virtually impossible to prosecute smugglers without the testimony of their clients.
The only thing is, he said, once police make an arrest, they usually turn those whose only crime is entering the country illegally over to the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And that agency then deports them, so they’re not available to provide the testimony necessary to get a conviction.
“It’s been difficult to do that and bring cases against smugglers,’’ Paton said.
Current law allows a magistrate to require a “material witness” to agree in writing to testify. There also can be a requirement to post a bond. If the witness cannot comply, he or she can be held for up to three days to provide evidence which can be used at a trial.
Rick Unklesbay, Pima County’s chief criminal deputy attorney, said that threeday window is not enough. He said a defendant usually doesn’t even have appointed counsel within that time, and any deposition taken without opposing counsel present can’t be used at trial.
HB2016 says a person may be detained for up to seven days if the crime is human smuggling and the witness is not in this country legally.