US Citizen Jailed Three Years as Alien Can’t Sue

A U.S. citizen spent over three years in immigration detention and was nearly deported because federal agents botched his citizenship investigation, and now a federal appeals court has dismissed his false imprisonment claim because it was filed too late. It should have been made while he was still in jail.

As many people know, aliens have no right to a lawyer in detention and deportation proceedings, but what many don’t know is that U.S. citizens have no such right if they too are ensnared in the detention system, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann pointed out in his dissent from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Monday.

Davino Watson, of New York, has been a U.S. citizen since 2002.  But in 2007 he began a three-and-one-half year stint in an immigration jail because the government mistakenly believed he was a deportable alien. He even received a removal order from an immigration judge. While he appealed the order, and after the appeals court sent it back, ICE began to suspect that Watson might be a U.S. citizen. In November 2011, he was abruptly released into rural Alabama without money and where he knew no one, according to the court.

His removal case, nevertheless, continued for a year, but eventually it was determined he was a citizen based on his father’s naturalization in 2002. Watson sought a certificate proving his citizenship, which he got after a long delay.

In 2013, Watson sued the government for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and negligence in the investigation and failure to deliver his citizenship certificate. A trial judge dismissed all but his false imprisonment claim.

On appeal, the 2nd Circuit, in a 2-1 decision Monday dismissed even the false imprisonment claim saying it was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations, meaning Watson should have filed while he was still detained and fighting for his release without legal help.

“There is no doubt that the government botched the investigation into Watson’s assertion of citizenship, and that as a result a U.S. citizen was held for years in immigration detention and was nearly deported, wrote Judge Dennis Jacobs, joined by Judge Debra Livingston. “Nonetheless, we must conclude that Watson is not entitled to damages from the government.  His false imprisonment claim was untimely,” Jacobs said.

In dissent, Katzmann wrote, “Watson did everything possible to assert his citizenship in the face of colossal government failure resulting in his 1,273-day detention. It is not clear to me how, under these circumstances, Watson should have known in 2008 that he needed to file an administrative tort claim to preserve a possible tort claim that could not possibly succeed until the government acknowledged his derivative citizenship over three years later.”

How Watson Got There

Watson was born in Jamaica. At the age of 13 in 1998, he came to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident to live with his father who was also a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. In September 2002, Watson’s father became a naturalized citizen, which meant that Watson automatically became at U.S. citizen at the same time as his father.

The government mistakenly thought he might not be a citizen because his father, Hopeton Ulando Watson, and his mother, Dorette McFarlane, never married.

In 2007, Watson pleaded guilty to New York state charge of selling cocaine. While in prison, ICE agents investigated his citizenship to decide if he was deportable but never called the numbers for his father and step-mother that Watson gave them.

Compounding the error, they found similar, but incorrect names for two people born in Jamaica and living in Connecticut. Agents assumed these were his parents. Nor did agents look at the affidavit submitted by Watson’s father in 1998 for citizenship. Instead, the Connecticut Watson was not a citizen, so ICE assumed that Davino Watson was an alien subject to deportation as well.

He was arrested by ICE at the end of his state prison sentence and placed in custody despite his insistence that he was a citizen.  Thus began his three-year odyssey through the immigration courts.

“I am hopeful that one day soon no immigrant or citizen will be forced to go through a predicament like Watson’s without the assistance of counsel to help vindicate his cause,” Katzmann concluded.

Case: Watson v. U.S., No. 16-655


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