- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

RICHMOND (AP) — Police in Virginia have authority similar to those in Arizona to question suspects they stop or arrest about their immigration status, Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said in an advisory opinion.

Mr. Cuccinelli said in an opinion that law-enforcement officers can query people in connection with criminal matters only.

The authority to ask about whether immigrants are in the country legally, however, does not extend to civil violations such as zoning infractions unless the jurisdiction has entered an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

And even in criminal matters, police questioning about possible immigration abuses can’t substantially lengthen the time a person is stopped or detained, Mr. Cuccinelli said.

“The authority to arrest lies clearly where there is a criminal offense, and it is decidedly unclear where it is a civil offense, so our advice to law enforcement is that in the absence of (agreements with ICE) is not to arrest,” Mr. Cuccinelli said in a conference call with journalists to discuss a favorable court ruling in his challenge to the new federal health reform law.

The politically ambitious Republican attorney general issued his ruling Friday in response to an inquiry from Del. Robert G. Marshall, a conservative Republican from a county whose crackdowns on its large immigrant population drew national attention in 2007 and 2008.

Last week, the chairman of Prince William County’s board of supervisors set up a policital action committee to push for legislation in Virginia similar to tough immigration laws similar to Arizona’s and to defeat General Assembly candidates who oppose it in 2011’s elections.

“I saw what Arizona was doing and detected a discontent among the populace over the federal government playing the role of Pontius Pilate on the question of immigration,” Mr. Marshall said. “I wanted to see what powers we have in Virginia in that arena.”

There was no reply Monday to telephone messages seeking comment on Mr. Cuccinelli’s guidance to Virginia law-enforcement officers from Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a lobbyist for the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.

Mr. Cuccinelli’s limited go-ahead to police officers to make cursory immigration inquiries during traffic stops or criminal investigations raises the same questions federal courts are addressing in lawsuits filed against Arizona’s tough and contentious new law.

On Wednesday, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against a provision of the Arizona law that requires officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws.

Should the lawsuit against the Arizona law reach the U.S. Supreme Court and yield a ruling that civil officials can inquire about the status of immigrants, Mr. Cuccinelli said, then Virginia also could broaden its authority into civil matters, provided state laws are also changed to allow it.