High Court Upholds Immigrant’s Sentence In DUI Death

MADISON, Wis. — Immigrant advocates criticized the Wisconsin Supreme Court for upholding Wednesday a drunken driver’s 15-year sentence that advocates say unduly took into account the man’s lack of citizenship.

Leopoldo Salas Gayton, a Mexican immigrant who is in the U.S. illegally, pleaded no contest to charges of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and causing death while operating without a license after he killed a woman in 2011 while driving the wrong direction on a Milwaukee freeway while drunk.

At a sentencing hearing in July 2011, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Dennis Cimpl mentioned Salas Gayton’s immigration status multiple times, saying his status as an “illegal alien” is a minor factor but relates to his character.

In a post-conviction motion, Salas Gayton argued the court improperly considered his immigration status in giving him the maximum sentence, but the circuit court and the 1st District Court of Appeals said that wasn’t the case. The high court affirmed those courts’ decisions Wednesday.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s opinion doesn’t clearly answer whether a sentencing court may rely on a defendant’s “illegal immigrant status” as a factor in fashioning a sentence.

It does emphasize the circuit court’s reliance on issues other than Salas Gayton’s immigration status, concluding the harsh sentence was imposed because of his “dangerous conduct operating a vehicle while intoxicated and the tragic consequences of that act.”

“The fact that you’re an illegal alien doesn’t enter into the serious nature of the crime or the need to protect the community,” Cimpl said, according to a transcript included in the opinion. “It goes to character. It’s a minor character flaw very honestly.”

By BRYNA GODAR of StarTribune
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