By ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN
Feb. 17, 2009, 8:16PM
Ariz. — A federal jury found Tuesday that a southern Arizona rancher didn't violate the civil rights of a group of illegal immigrants who said he detained them at gunpoint in 2004.
The eight-member civil jury also found Roger Barnett wasn't liable on claims of battery and false imprisonment.
But the jury did find him liable on four claims of assault and four claims of infliction of emotional distress and ordered Barnett to pay $77,804 in damages — $60,000 of which were punitive.
Barnett declined to comment afterward, but one of his attorneys, David Hardy, said the plaintiffs lost on the bulk of their claims and that Barnett has a good basis for appeal on the two counts on which he lost.
"They won a fraction of the damages they were seeking," Hardy said.
All six plaintiffs are citizens of Mexico, five of whom are living in the United States with visa applications pending, and the sixth resides in Mexico but was allowed into the U.S. for the trial, said Nina Perales, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She declined to say where in the U.S. they're residing.
Perales called the outcome "a resounding victory that sends a message that vigilante violence against immigrants will not be tolerated."
David Urias, attorney for the plaintiffs, said, "Obviously we are disappointed with some aspects of the verdict. But I think that overall this was a victory for the plaintiffs."
For years, Arizona has been the busiest point along the Mexican border for illegal immigrants entering the United States.
For more than a decade, Barnett has been a controversial figure in southern Arizona. He's known for aggressively patrolling his ranch property and along highways and roads in the area, often with his wife and brothers, on the lookout for illegal immigrants.
The plaintiffs alleged that Barnett threatened them with his dog and told them he would shoot anyone who tried to escape.
Barnett's lawyers argued that his land was inundated with illegal immigrants who left trash on his property, damaged his water supply and harmed his cattle.
Barnett's wife and a brother were dismissed as defendants; in addition, 10 more people initially named as plaintiffs were dropped from the proceedings.
Barnett has been known to wear a holstered 9-mm pistol on his hip and upon coming across groups of migrants, to flash a blue and gold badge resembling that of the highway patrol, with the wording "Barnett Ranch Patrol. Cochise County. State of Arizona."
The Barnetts detain and turn over those whom they encounter to the U.S. Border Patrol. In 2006, Barnett estimated that he had detained more than 10,000 illegal immigrants in 10 years.
His actions have resulted in formal complaints from the Mexican government against what it considers vigilante actions, and in several other lawsuits, including one stemming from an October 2004 incident.
In that case, a jury awarded a family of Mexican-Americans on a hunting trip $100,000 in damages, later upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Barnett's 22,000-acre ranch, about five miles north of the Mexican border, includes private and federal lease holdings in addition to nearly 14,000 acres of state-leased land.