SPLC sues Louisiana sheriff to obtain documents related to detention of immigrants

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed suit today against a Louisiana sheriff who is refusing to release public documents that could confirm concerns that the rights of immigrants detained in Louisiana have been systematically violated

The lawsuit against Vermilion Parish Sheriff Michael Couvillon was filed in state court after he and a number of other sheriffs across the state refused to release documents sought by the SPLC.

The issue is whether Louisiana sheriffs are complying with federal regulations determining how long they can hold individuals suspected of being undocumented.

State and local agencies are frequently asked by the U.S. Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) to detain individuals following the resolution of traffic, municipal or state criminal charges if the agency suspects a person has committed a civil immigration violation. But federal regulations prohibit the local agencies from holding them beyond 48 hours after the initial charges are resolved. There is concern that local law enforcement agencies in Louisiana, and possibly in other states, regularly use the cover of these ICE “immigration detainers” to hold immigrants for unconstitutionally excessive periods.

“Law enforcement cannot just lock someone up – regardless of race, ethnicity or immigration status – and throw away the key,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office and the individual requesting the documents. “We are prepared to do whatever it takes to view these records and ensure that proper safeguards are in place.

The SPLC sent the first of several official requests for documents under the Louisiana Public Records Act (Act) in July, but Couvillon has refused to comply. Today’s complaint asks a Louisiana state court to force the sheriff to hand over documents related to policies and procedures for detaining immigrants as well as copies of individual immigration detainer forms.

The SPLC has requested similar documents from 63 Louisiana parishes. Vermilion Parish is among 15 parishes that have refused to comply, claiming the records are exempt from the Public Records Act.  

The complaint notes that “[t]here is no express exemption for immigration detainers in the [Public Records] Act or, even more generally, for records relating to federal immigration enforcement.” It further states that “[t]he public’s right to have access to public records is a fundamental right guaranteed by statute and the Louisiana Constitution.

“The law is clear that the public has a right to review these public records,” said Schwartzmann. We are merely asking the sheriff to abide by state law and provide us access to these documents and transparency to Vermilion Parish’s handling of immigrant detainees.”