A federal jury in Tucson ruled Tuesday that an Arizona rancher did not violate the civil rights of 16 Mexican nationals he stopped after they sneaked illegally into the United States, but awarded $78,000 in actual and punitive damages on claims of assault and the infliction of emotional distress.
The jury of four men and four women returned the verdict Tuesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Tucson after a day and a half of deliberation. The jury, after a nine-day trial, also threw out charges of false imprisonment, battery and conspiracy against Douglas, Ariz., rancher Roger Barnett.
In a case that generated national outrage over the ability of Americans to stop illegal immigrants, most of the award - about $60,000 - was for punitive damages.
The illegal immigrants, five women and 11 men, had sought $32 million in actual and punitive damages - $2 million each - in a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). The allegations were based on a March 7, 2004, incident in which Mr. Barnett approached a group of illegal immigrants while he patrolled his ranch carrying a gun and accompanied by his dog.
The ranch has become a major corridor for armed drug and immigrant smugglers.
Mr. Barnett's attorney, David T. Hardy of Tucson, described the decision as an "80 percent victory," adding that he wished he and his client "would have gotten the other 20 percent." But he said he would appeal the decision, citing what he called "solid grounds." He also said U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, who heard the case, was "scrupulously fair" during the trial.
A rancher and successful businessman, Mr. Barnett owns the Cross Rail Ranch near Douglas, where he maintains cattle on 22,000 acres of private and leased land. Also named in the lawsuit were Mr. Barnett's wife, Barbara, and his brother, Donald, although the jury dismissed the allegations against them.
Mr. Hardy said his client was "tired" but thought he had "come off with a win our way."
The jury awarded $7,500 each in actual damages to two of the plaintiffs for the infliction of emotional distress and $1,400 each to two others for assault.
The lawsuit charged that the Barnetts "engaged in a private campaign and have conspired with each other and others to 'hunt' and detain against their will, and at gunpoint, Latino migrants or presumed migrants such as plaintiffs." It said Mr. Barnett acted negligently and "engaged in a conspiracy to deprive plaintiffs of their civil rights."
Mr. Hardy argued that the Barnett ranch was frequently crossed by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers and that his client was checking for damages when his dog started barking and ran off into the desert. He said Mr. Barnett followed the dog and came across a large group of people "apparently trying to hide."
"Since drug smugglers are frequently armed, I drew my handgun," Mr. Barnett said in an April 18, 2007, deposition. "I holstered it after assuring myself they were not armed. I then called Border Patrol on my cell phone, and my wife, Barbara, on my radio, and waited until Border Patrol arrived and took them into custody."
One of the 16 illegal immigrants allowed to bring the lawsuit is a convicted felon deported from the U.S. after a 1993 arrest on federal drug charges, court records show. Gerardo Gonzalez, 38, was convicted in September 1993 of possession of a controlled substance for sale and ordered deported to his home country.
In a March 2007 deposition, Border Patrol agent Manuel Rodriquez said agents ran a records check of those detained on the Barnett ranch in the 2004 incident and found that other members of the party had made prior attempts at illegal entry.
In a 2002 interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Barnett, now 64, said he first started to notice tracks and trash on his ranch in 1998, and learned later that his property had become a major route for illegal immigrants headed out of Mexico and for northbound drug smugglers.
The ranch sits 50 miles east of Douglas in what Cochise County, Ariz., law enforcement authorities call "the avenue of choice" for illegal immigration.
Mr. Barnett said intruders on his ranch tore up water pumps, killed calves, destroyed fences and gates, stole trucks and broke into his home. Some of his cattle died from ingesting the plastic bottles left behind by the immigrants, he said, adding that he installed a faucet on an 8,000-gallon water tank so the immigrants would stop damaging the tank to get water.
A former Cochise County sheriff's deputy who later became successful in the towing and propane business, Mr. Barnett said he carried a pistol during his searches for the immigrants and a rifle in his truck "for protection" against immigrant and drug smugglers. He said he has rounded up as many as 86 illegal immigrants in one night. He said he turns over those he apprehends to the Border Patrol.
His sprawling ranch became an illegal-immigration highway when the Border Patrol - backed by an infusion of manpower, equipment and technology - diverted its attention to several border towns in an effort to take control of the established ports of entry. That effort moved the illegal immigrants to the remote areas of the border, including the Cross Rail Ranch.