Illegal immigrants an Army reservist held at gunpoint were freed late Wednesday — and the people who freed them vow to prove that the soldier should be the one in jail.
Five of the six immigrants were released after a Los Angeles-based immigration law group posted $5,000 bond for each. The sixth immigrant’s bond was also paid, but he remained in custody because of a health issue, immigration officials said.
The men must now wait to go before an immigration judge, which could take up to six months.
In the meantime, they are gearing up for a battle that could end in the civil courts.
Attorney Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said Patrick Haab violated the immigrants’ civil rights when he detained them at gunpoint April 10 at a rest stop near Gila Bend.
Schey called Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas’ interpretation of the law "completely erroneous" when he decided to not charge Haab with aggravated assault.
Schey urged Thomas in a letter last week to reconsider.
"We realize that any such legal case would not be for the purpose of winning substantial damages," Schey said. "It would be to obtain a ruling that would not leave the county attorney’s conclusion that Mr. Haab acted lawfully — and that others may do the same thing — as the last word on the subject."
Special assistant county attorney Barnett Lotstein said they are sticking with their decision.
"We are confident that the decision we made with regard to Haab was appropriate," Lotstein said. "He did not break the law, and we do not prosecute someone if they’re not breaking the law just to make a point. That’s what some people want us to do."
Arizona’s citizen’s arrest law allows a person to arrest someone committing a felony, and in Haab’s case, one of the illegal immigrants was smuggling humans and the other six were conspiring with him — both federal felonies, Thomas said late last month.
The six immigrants are material witnesses in a federal case against the suspected smuggler.
Haab also was justified in drawing his pistol because a person can brandish a weapon to stop a fleeing felon or if he believes he is in danger, Thomas said.
Last week, 36 Republican lawmakers signed a letter strongly agreeing with Thomas’ decision not to prosecute Haab, instead calling the reservist a patriot.
Schey fears that this decision leaves the door wide open for armed vigilantism in Maricopa County, even though Thomas maintained it does not give people license to begin rounding up illegal immigrants.
Schey says the federal law is very clear that only the authorities can enforce immigration law, but the argument could only work in federal court.
Schey has also urged the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute Haab criminally for the citizen’s arrest, but there has been no indication that will happen.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether any civil rights were violated.