Cochise County rancher Roger Barnett cannot escape paying punitive damages to border crossers he kidnapped despite a 2011 state law passed specifically to help him, a federal judge has ruled.

Frank Zapata acknowledged that Arizona voters approved a measure in 2006 which constitutionally spells out that anyone not in this country legally is ineligible to collect punitive damages after winning a lawsuit.

That, however, came too late for Barnett who was sued following a 2004 incident when 16 illegal immigrants said the rancher illegally imprisoned them while they were crossing his property. One woman also said she was kicked.

So last year, the Legislature voted to make that ballot measure retroactive to the start of 2004.

Armed with that law, Barnett went back to federal court to void the $60,000 in punitive damages that four of the plaintiffs were awarded two years ago.

Zapata rejected the arguments.

The judge, almost in passing, said in a footnote that he accepted the arguments of attorneys for the plaintiffs that the 2011 law is unconstitutional. But Zapata said he could reject Barnett’s arguments on more basic grounds: If lawmakers were trying to help Barnett, they did not do it right.

The judge pointed out that the constitutional language says those not in this country legally cannot be awarded punitive damages.

But Zapata said that the question of punitive damages — a special award meant to punish a defendant for outrageous conduct or make an example of that person — does not arise until the case is finished and a defendant is found liable.

More to the point, Zapata pointed out that when a different judge awarded punitive damages in February 2009, three of them were lawfully present in the country. And a fourth, the judge said, had returned to Mexico after she was allowed to be present to testify at the trial.

“Therefore, when punitive damages were awarded, none of the plaintiffs were present in Arizona in violation of federal immigration law.”

During the 2011 legislative hearing, Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said helping Barnett was exactly what he had in mind.

He said the 2006 constitutional amendment, referred to the ballot by the Legislature, was a direct reaction to the fact lawmakers knew Barnett was being sued.

“We weren’t smart enough at that point to understand that there was going to be a time lapse,” Weiers said at the time, making Barnett unable to take advantage of that change.

Zapata, however, said all that is legally irrelevant. He said that judges are bound to follow the words lawmakers put on paper — and into the statute books.

“If we find no ambiguity in the statute’s language, we must give effect to that language and we may not employ other rules of construction to interpret the provision,” the judge wrote.

Weiers argued at the time that the restriction against punitive damages makes sense.

“How incredibly silly that you’ve got people breaking the law, trespassing, doing this and that on personal property, and then you’re handed punitive damage awards,” he said.

Barnett’s separate efforts to have the entire verdict overturned have proven no more successful. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his arguments that the trial judge should have told jurors they could consider his claim of self-defense.

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