PHOENIX - Cochise County rancher Roger Barnett cannot escape paying punitive damages to border crossers he kidnapped, despite a 2011 state law passed to help him, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata acknowledged that Arizona voters approved a constitutional measure in 2006 that anyone not in this country legally is ineligible to collect punitive damages after winning a lawsuit.
That came too late for Barnett, however, who was sued following a 2004 incident when 16 illegal immigrants said the rancher illegally imprisoned them while they were crossing his property. One woman also said she was kicked.
So last year, the Legislature voted to make the ballot measure retroactive to the start of 2004.
Armed with that law, Barnett went back to federal court to void the $60,000 in punitive damages four of the plaintiffs were awarded two years ago.
Zapata rejected his arguments.
The judge, almost in passing, said in a footnote he accepted the arguments of attorneys for the plaintiffs that the 2011 law is unconstitutional. But Zapata said Barnett's arguments are flawed on more basic grounds: If lawmakers were trying to help Barnett, they did not do it right.
He pointed out that the constitutional language says those not in this country legally cannot be awarded punitive damages.
The question of punitive damages - a special award meant to punish a defendant for outrageous conduct or make an example of that person - does not arise until the case is finished and a defendant is found liable, Zapata said.
When a different judge awarded punitive damages in February 2009, Zapata noted that three of the plaintiffs were lawfully present in the country. And a fourth, the judge said, had returned to Mexico after she was allowed to be present to testify at the trial.
"Therefore, when punitive damages were awarded, none of the plaintiffs were present in Arizona in violation of federal immigration law," he said.
During the 2011 legislative hearing, Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said helping Barnett was his intent, and the 2006 constitutional amendment, referred to the ballot by the Legislature, was a direct reaction to the fact lawmakers knew Barnett was being sued.
"We weren't smart enough at that point to understand that there was going to be a time lapse," Weiers said, making Barnett unable to take advantage of the change.
Zapata said, however, that judges are bound to follow the words lawmakers put on paper - and into the statute books.
Barnett's separate efforts to have the entire verdict overturned have proven no more successful. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his arguments that the trial judge should have told jurors they could consider his claim of self-defense.
"We weren't smart enough at that point to understand that there was going to be a time lapse."
Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix