Important Third Circuit Decision Regarding Mandatory Detention

On April 22, 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important precedential decision concerning the temporal reach of mandatory detention, which heretofore, at least in this Circuit recently, had been circumscribed by District Court rulings. In Sylvain vs. Attorney General, the Court ruled that despite the dilatory gap between the individual’s conviction and when he was ultimately taken into custody, the mandatory detention statute nevertheless dictated his detention.

Michael Sylvain was a legal permanent resident, who over the years, had been convicted of ten drug related offenses, his most recent being in 2007. Four years later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deemed him deportable based on those convictions. Moreover, ICE determined that he was subject to mandatory detention and as such, was not eligible for a bond hearing. Mr. Sylvain petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that the mandatory detention statute did not apply to him. The court agreed, and granted him a bail hearing. The government subsequently appealed.

Mandatory detention is authorized by 8 U.S.C.§1226(c)(1), which mandates that immigration authorities “ take into custody any alien who [has committed various deportable/inadmissible crimes] when the alien is released.” The alien can then be detained indefinitely during the pendency of the legal proceeding. The words “when…released” and how they are to be interpreted were the focus of the ruling.

The Third Circuit ruled in the government’s favor. According to the Court, the statutory authority of the government to take an individual into custody was not attenuated by the delay accompanying its exercise of its power. In other words, the government did not lose its authority to subject Mr. Sylvain to mandatory detention despite the four years it took in doing so. The court found that even if an alien has already left custody, nothing within the statute vitiates or dilutes the officers’ authority to take and hold a removable individual without bond (provided that the alien falls within the delineated classes). Underlying the Court’s rationale is an apparent fear of exposing the public to dangerous aliens on account of bureaucratic inertia and negligence. Indeed, the court ended by citing the Supreme Court in United States v. Montalvo-Murillo, 495 U.S. 711 (1990). There, it was said “the end of exacting compliance with the letter of [the statute] cannot justify the means of exposing the public to an increased likelihood of violent crime by persons on bail, an evil the statute aims to prevent.”

While seeming to solve some questions, the case arguably raises concerns over the rights of aliens and how long is too long. Mr. Sylvain had been released for four years before he was taken into immigration custody and denied an individual bond hearing to determine whether he posed a danger to society. During his time outside, he committed no further crimes and did not prove himself to be a flight risk. Apparently, the government’s reach is not confined by time, at least in the Third Circuit, even though individuals charged with criminal crimes are protected by statutes of limitations and entitled to bail hearings under almost all circumstances. Would the Court’s ruling be any different if the delay were ten years, or twenty? Only future litigation will tell.