PHOENIX - Federal judges on Monday approved procedures used in courts to speed up the processing of illegal immigrants.
In a unanimous ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there is nothing inherently wrong with taking guilty pleas from individuals in a large group at a single hearing.
Appellate Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain said nothing in the process used violates the constitutional rights of those involved.
Federal prosecutors defended the process as a practical way to deal with the large number of illegal immigrants who have to be processed every day. It also comes more than a year after another panel of the same appellate court voided a similar process as unconstitutional.
But there was a key difference in the way the other cases were handled, which made this process legal while the others were not.
Under Operation Streamline, up to 70 people accused of illegally entering the United States have their initial appearance, guilty pleas and sentencing in a single hearing.
In a 2009 ruling, the 9th Circuit said taking pleas en masse, with all defendants agreeing to plead guilty as a group, violated the constitutional rights of those involved.
In response to that ruling, the procedure changed.
The magistrate speaking to the group still informed them collectively of their rights, their charges and the consequences of pleading guilty and then asked them collectively if they understood their rights. The record reflects no one indicated not doing so.
But under the new procedure, which was upheld, the magistrate then asked each defendant individually how he chose to plead and whether there was a factual basis for the charges. After pleading guilty, the defendants in the more recent case were sentenced to time served and ordered returned to Mexico.
O'Scannlain said the earlier ruling did not ban group hearings, but only required magistrates to ensure each and every person in the group had, in fact, pleaded guilty, which they could not be absolutely sure of from a group response.