SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge issued a split ruling Wednesday on Utah's controversial immigration law, upholding one key measure but striking down several others in legislation that was passed in 2011 amid a wave of immigration crackdowns around the country.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups upheld a key provision that requires police work with federal authorities to check the immigration status of people arrested for felonies or certain misdemeanors such as theft, while giving authorities the discretion to check the citizenship of those stopped for traffic infractions and other lesser offenses.
But Waddoups set limits on how it can be implemented. For instance, officers cannot hold a person longer than normal just to wait for federal officials verify immigration status. That means if a person is stopped for a traffic offense that doesn't require booking, he or she cannot be detained solely because of questions about immigration status.
Those limits, based on detailed guidance issued in 2012 by the Utah attorney general's office, led immigrant-advocacy groups to claim victory in the ruling.
Waddoups' ruling struck down a provision that allows warrantless arrests based solely on suspicion of immigration status. He also tossed a part of the law that made it a state crime to harbor a person in the country illegally and one that requires local officers to investigate immigration offenses.
"The ruling is sending a clear message to state and local police that they can't stop, detain or arrest anyone solely for immigration purposes," said Jennifer Chang-Newell, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights project.
The ruling comes more than a year after a hearing in the case and more than three years since the law was passed. The measure has been shelved pending a court review.
The ruling shows the tide is turning against these types of state immigration enforcement laws, said Chang-Newell, who helped argue the case in federal court. Provisions in similar laws in Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama have also been blocked by judges, she said.
Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, declared victory after reading the ruling. Her group also helped with the case.
"The decision really is the last across the country to issue a stinging rebuke of the anti-immigration agenda," Tumlin said.
A spokesman for the Utah governor's office said it was reviewing the ruling to determine how it impacts legislation passed in 2011.
A statement from the Utah attorney general's office said the decision "affirms that there is a role for state action related to the area of immigration enforcement."
"If the plaintiffs decide to appeal Judge Waddoups's order, our office is ready to defend the District Court's decision," Attorney General Sean Reyes said.
In his 30-page ruling, Waddoups compared Utah's key provision to the Arizona measure upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, basing his ruling largely on the higher court's reasoning.
He said so long as officers follow the parameters for implementation set out in the guidance from the Utah attorney general two years ago, the rule doesn't violate anyone's constitutional rights.
That guidance prohibits officers from trying to verify a person's immigration status unless they encounter a person in a legal stop, detention or arrest. Officers aren't required to see any specific type of documentation, but may ask for a driver's license from Utah or another state, a tribal enrollment card or any ID document that includes photo and a biometric identifier, the document states. It clarifies that people are not required to carry any immigration documentation
"It does not provide an independent basis for stops, detentions or arrests. Nor may a stop, detention, or arrest be prolonged merely to confirm a person's immigration status," Waddoups wrote.
Tony Yapias, immigration reform advocate and director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, praised elements of the ruling but said immigration issues would best be handled on a federal level. He applauded the judge for striking the warrantless-arrest provision, which he said would have led to racial profiling.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, a Republican from Orem who co-sponsored the law, said she was "not surprised, but disappointed" that three sections of the law were struck down. Dayton said she was glad most of the law was left alone, saying that Utah was "forced to act" to pass the law because the federal government wasn't doing its job.
"As state governments, we should do anything we can to protect our citizens from human trafficking and other illegal activity. If the courts rule these are the sole federal responsibility, then I'm most dismayed the federal government is endangering Utah citizens by disregarding their duty," Dayton said in a statement.
Dayton said she plans to explore what role the state plays in immigration issues during the next legislative session in January.
The other Utah legislator who pushed the law through, Republican Stephen Sandstrom, is no longer in office. He couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but said last year he hoped the federal judge would remove some provisions in the measure, if not the whole thing.
Sandstrom, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress, said he regrets pushing so hard for the measure in 2010, that it was the wrong approach, and that immigration enforcement should focus on immigrants in the country illegally who have committed other crimes.
His change of heart, he said, stemmed from a 2011 encounter with a college student brought to the U.S. illegally as a toddler, who told him she had recently graduated high school with good grades but no future. Before that, the Orem Republican spoke at anti-immigration rallies for Arizona's well-known border hawk, Russell Pearce, and sponsored, rallied and pushed for Utah's measure.