A new Arizona law that retroactively prevents courts from granting punitive damages to illegal immigrants will not help rancher Casey Nethercott, a Cochise County judge ruled Tuesday.
The Legislature earlier this year passed a law to make a 2006 referendum apply to cases dating back to 2004. The law was targeted at helping rancher Roger Barnett, who had lost a civil lawsuit alleging he held immigrants caught on his land at gunpoint in 2004, assaulted them and caused emotional distress. He was ordered to pay them $87,000.
Nethercott said he believed the new law also would help him. In 2003, Nethercott and several other members of a volunteer border-patrol group called Ranch Rescue stopped two illegal immigrants on a ranch they were patrolling in Texas. The immigrants alleged that Nethercott threatened them and pistol-whipped a male immigrant in the head. Nethercott was criminally charged with aggravated assault, unlawful restraint and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He was convicted of the unlawful-possession charge and sentenced to serve several years in a Texas prison
A year after the incident, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil lawsuit against Nethercott and several of the other men on behalf of the immigrants. The Texas state court in 2005 issued a civil judgment of $850,000 against Nethercott. A Cochise County judge later signed over Nethercott's Arizona ranch to the immigrants to cover some of the judgment.
Shortly after the new Arizona law was passed, Nethercott filed a motion in Cochise County Superior Court to vacate the judgment against him. On Tuesday, Judge James Conlogue denied Nethercott's motion, leaving the judgment against him intact.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the judge said the new law did not apply to Nethercott for several reasons: There was no evidence the immigrants in the case had ever been to Arizona; the incident happened in 2003, before the new law's retroactive effective date; and the damages awarded were compensatory and not punitive.
"The judge went through the questions and the points we made, and found (the law) didn't apply to this case," center director Mary Bauer said.
Bauer said Conlogue did not address the constitutionality of the new law.
"We continue to believe that the law is unconstitutional," Bauer said. "But that's a matter for another day."
Nethercott said he thought he'd be bitter about the ruling, but he wasn't.
"I didn't get my ranch back, and I didn't get a dime, but at least the law's in effect," he said. "If something happens with an illegal, and they try to sue you and get visas and amnesty, it won't work anymore. Nobody else will lose their home. That's what's important."