I.N.S. v. Lopez-Mendoza

468 U.S. 1032 (1984)

The Supreme Court held that deportation hearings are civil proceedings, the defendant cannot suppress his or her identity even if subject to an unlawful arrest, and the exclusionary rule does not apply to deportation hearings. Read the opinion here.

The case featured two respondents, Lopez-Mendoza and Sandoval-Sanchez. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) arrested Lopez-Mendoza and Sandoval-Sanchez during a warrantless search of their work.  An immigration judge ordered both of them deported. On appeal, the Supreme Court consolidated their cases.  

Justice O’Connor, writing for the majority, stated that a deportation does not look at past actions by a defendant (except to shed light on the present) and only determines whether the defendant can stay in the United States. This led to her belief that deportation hearings are civil. In a civil proceeding, the judicial system does not afford the defendant the same protections as in a criminal trial. For example, for deportation the government only needs to show “reasonable, substantial, and probative evidence,” which is substantially less than the criminal trial requirement of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Justice O’Connor held that deportation hearings are intended to streamline the deportation process.

Lopez-Mendoza sought to reverse his deportation because the immigration judge held a hearing after an unlawful arrest. However, the majority declared that because deportation hearings are not adjudicating past conduct, the lawfulness of the arrest or subsequent interrogations are immaterial. This means the government is trying to prevent an ongoing crime, which is different from punishing previous crimes. If a crime is in progress, immigration agents have the ability to arrest the immigrant.

Sandoval-Sanchez sought to exclude the evidence obtained upon his arrest from use at the trial. O’Connor found this argument more persuasive. The exclusionary rule suppresses evidence collected during an unlawful search, as determined by the Fourth Amendment. However, the Court had yet to decide its application in deportation hearings.

The Court decided to apply a balancing test to determine the application of the exclusionary rule. The Court balanced the social benefits of the exclusionary rule against the costs. The main benefit and reason for the exclusionary rule is to deter unlawful police conduct, while the costs of the rule are a more cumbersome adjudication and loss of probative evidence.

The majority believed the exclusionary rule would not have the usual deterrent effect on INS agents. The value of the rule is greater in criminal proceedings, while the INS usually arrests for a civil deportation hearing. Considering that the government must only establish the respondent’s identity and alienage, the identity of the alien cannot be suppressed, and alienage can often be proven with outside evidence; the officer will not need probative evidence discovered in an unlawful search. INS officials do not anticipate undocumented immigrants to challenge their deportation on exclusionary grounds, considering there were fewer than fifty deportation hearings since 1952 to address the Fourth Amendment challenge. In addition, the INS had implemented rules to deter the officers from violating the Fourth Amendment, so there was less need for courts to protect immigrants. Finally, “the possibility of declaratory relief against the agency thus offers a means for challenging the validity of INS practices, when standing requirements for bringing such an action can be met.” This would cause the exclusionary rule not to have its intended effect.

The majority ruled that the costs of applying the exclusionary rule would be too high. One cost would be excluding evidence the government needs to stop an ongoing crime (illegally in the country), because the government found it unlawfully. If more immigrants posed constitutional questions, it would bog down the streamlined deportation system. Further, Justice O’Connor determined that considering the number of arrests made by a single INS agent, it would be impractical for the officer to compile elaborate written reports for each arrest. The rule would restrict the INS from making mass arrests, which was the usual course of action. Considering the lack of the deterrent effect and the costs to the system, the Court decided that the exclusionary rule has no place in immigration courts.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the appellate courts and reinstated the orders for deportation.

Justice Brennan, White, Marshall, and Stevens dissented. Justice Brennan stated he did not believe a constitutional violation was immaterial because INS agents commit the violation or use the evidence at a civil trial. Justice White argued that the cost-benefit analysis of the exclusionary rule resulted in the same conclusion for criminal and civil proceedings, meaning the judiciary should apply the exclusionary rule to both. Justice Marshall agreed with Justice White, but concluded that the cost-benefit analysis was inadequate to determine the application of the Fourth Amendment.

Authored by: Benjamin St. John Allen, Cornell Law School