Aug. 2 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court affirmed that U.S. citizen Davino Watson was falsely imprisoned by immigration authorities for three years, but ruled that he can't be compensated because the statute of limitations on the claim ran out by the time he filed a grievance.
"There is no doubt that the government botched the investigation into Watson's assertion of citizenship, and that as a result a U.S. citizen was held for years in immigration detention and was nearly deported," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday. "Nonetheless, we must conclude that Watson is not entitled to damages from the government."
Watson was born in Jamaica but moved to the United States as a child and became a naturalized citizen in 2002 at the age of 17. In 2007, he was arrested for selling cocaine and sentenced to eight months in prison. He served his sentence and was about to be released, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents requested that he be held because they believed he was an undocumented immigrant.
Watson told ICE officials that he was a citizen and asked them to contact his father, Hopeton Ulando Watson, who'd also obtained U.S. citizenship on the same day. But ICE contacted the wrong man, instead calling Hopeton Livingston Watson, who was not a U.S. citizen.
Watson continued to make his citizenship claim, but was largely ignored until the mistake was affirmed by ICE officials and they released him in 2011.
ICE released Watson into rural Alabama, where he knew nobody, without money, and without being told the reason for his release, court documents state.
During his time in immigration detention, Watson was not given an attorney because undocumented immigrants do not have a right to counsel.
In 2013, Watson filed a complaint against ICE in New York District Court on grounds that he was falsely imprisoned. In 2016, a New York district judge awarded him $82,500 in damages.
"Plaintiff was badly treated by government employees," wrote U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein. "He deserves a letter of apology from the United States in addition to damages."
ICE appealed the ruling and won because the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that, under law, a tort claim against a federal agency must be filed within two years.
"It is arresting and disturbing that an American citizen was detained for years in immigration proceedings while facing deportation, but Watson's claims for damages are foreclosed by precedent," U.S. Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote.
Jacobs did recognize that Watson was falsely imprisoned, despite the statute of limitations running out.
"Watson's false imprisonment claim is untimely, and we reverse the judgment to that extent. We otherwise affirm," he wrote.
Watson's lawyer, Mark Flessner, said Watson might appeal his case to the Supreme Court.
"We think that the analysis of the law by the majority opinion is clearly wrong, respectfully," Flessner said, according to NPR.
In his 2016 ruling in favor of awarding Watson damages, Weinstein said the case represented an "unmet need for counsel in immigration cases."
"Had an attorney been available to him at the outset, plaintiff probably promptly would have been declared a citizen and released almost immediately after he was arrested, if he were arrested at all," Weinstein wrote.