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New South Carolina police unit raises criminal defense questions

Columbia residents might have heard about a new state police unit that is designed to investigate immigrants charged with crimes. The special force is the first of its kind in the nation, and it has already stirred up a lot of controversy, with opponents arguing that it will inevitably overstep its authority or engage in racial profiling. It also raises interesting possibilities for criminal defense.

The South Carolina Immigration Enforcement Unit was created last year under the state's new immigration law, but it is only now at the point where its officers are ready to begin patrols. So far, there are only six officers in the unit. After a series of disputes with the federal government over which agency has proper jurisdiction over immigration issues, the new unit is not allowed to check a suspect's residency status. The officers may investigate violations of state law, but they must contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find out whether a suspect is in the country legally. Other programs may still check a person's residency status.

Whether arrested by the new unit or any other police officer, a suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a criminal trial. Those charged with crimes are entitled to a vigorous defense. A strong defense attorney will investigate whether the police did their job properly in arresting the suspect. If the police overstepped their authority in making the arrest, it is possible to get the charges dismissed as a violation of the United States Constitution or other laws.

It is probably too early to know whether the South Carolina Immigration Enforcement Unit will make much of an impact on law enforcement. But the behind-the-scenes disputes over its authority can serve as a reminder that those who are arrested must have a strong defense to protect them from the possibility of police misconduct.

Source: McClatchy Newspapers, "First-of-its-kind police unit to focus on immigrants who commit crimes," Noelle Phillips, Aug. 14, 2012

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