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Washington Supreme Court: Immigration Status 'Generally Inadmissible' in Court

There are times when a person's immigration status will be relevant in a court of law. Say, if a person is accused of falsifying documents to hide that status. It could also come up if a witness is receiving some immigration benefit in exchange for or in order to facilitate their testimony. In an on-the-job personal injury case? Immigration status is not so relevant.

So said the Washington Supreme Court back in 2010, when it granted an injured worker a new trial on the grounds the jury in his first may have been prejudiced by knowledge that the man had overstayed his visa. Last week, the court officially adopted that rule of evidence, making immigration status "generally inadmissible" in both civil and criminal court.

Criminal Status

In criminal cases, "evidence of a party's or a witness's immigration status shall not be admissible unless immigration status is an essential fact to prove an element of, or a defense to, the criminal offense with which the defendant is charged, or to show bias or prejudice of a witness." It's the "bias or prejudice part" that had defense attorneys in the state resisting the new rule.

U-Visas allow crime victims to stay in the country legally to help investigations or prosecutions, and defense attorneys will often point this out to jurors as a possible reason for bias in the victim's testimony. "If somebody is being granted a benefit in exchange for their testimony," defense attorney Angus Lee told the Seattle Times, "Supreme Court case law for due process makes very clear that's relevant and admissible for impeachment." The new rule will require defense attorneys to file a pretrial motion asking to admit such evidence and argue it during a hearing.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, welcomed the rule, citing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents hanging around courthouses nationwide. "People are scared," King County deputy prosecuting attorney David Martin said. "They're scared because of what they hear coming out of the federal government. Immigration does come up in criminal cases, and sometimes it's entirely appropriate that the status is examined, but what this rule says is you have to have really good reasons."

Civil Status

In regards to civil claims, "evidence of a party's or a witness's immigration status shall not be admissible unless immigration status is an essential fact to prove an element of a party's cause of action." This goes back to that 2010 ruling, where the Washington Supreme Court said the danger of unfair prejudice upon being presented with immigration status outweighed the evidence's value, therefore ruling that a lower court's decision to admit the evidence was "an abuse of discretion."

The court turned out to be right. In the first trial, a jury found a scaffolding company liable for using ladders that violated safety codes, but didn't award the worker who was seriously injured in a fall from one of those ladders, Alex Salas, any damages after hearing evidence of his immigration status. After the state supreme court granted him another trial, wherein the jury did not hear that Salas's visa had expired at the time of the accident, he was awarded $2.6 million in damages.

Washington's new rule will go into effect September 1, 2018.

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