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SPLC brings first lawsuit challenging Florida sheriffs’ latest collaboration agreements to detain people for ICE

The SPLC sued Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay today for illegally holding a U.S. citizen in the county jail on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold.

The suit is the first to challenge a Florida sheriff for unlawfully detaining people at ICE’s request as part of a Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA), ICE’s latest scheme to use local law enforcement to find and deport immigrants.

Multiple federal courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional for local law enforcement agencies to keep people detained in jail once their criminal cases have ended, in order to give ICE a chance to pick them up and deport them.

As a result of those court rulings, many sheriffs in Florida became concerned that they, too, would get sued because of the unlawful holds, known as ICE detainers.

Led by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County and the Florida Sheriffs Association, they concluded that it was too risky for local law enforcement agencies to carry out detainer requests, given the legal precedents that hold counties liable for constitutional violations, according to internal emails the SPLC obtained via public records requests.

In January of this year, Florida sheriffs and ICE launched a pilot program, attempting to skirt that liability. Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and 16 other Florida sheriffs announced that they were signing agreements to hold people for ICE, in exchange for $50 for each person they hold.

The sheriffs, including Ramsay, signed BOAs with ICE. The sheriffs and ICE claim that BOAs shield counties from liability for holding people on ICE detainers. The SPLC is suing to prove them wrong.

Unlawful detention 

In April of this year, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully detained a U.S. citizen at ICE’s request, threatening him with deportation to Jamaica and mocking his pleas for help.  Based on the BOA, the sheriff’s office likely received $50 in exchange for violating the U.S. Constitution.

When Peter Sean Brown told the Monroe County sheriff’s deputies who kept him in jail on an immigration detainer that he is actually an American citizen, they mocked him repeatedly.

He said he was born in Philadelphia, but that just prompted one of the guards to sing the theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” about being “born and raised” in West Philadelphia.

“Yeah, whatever mon, everything’s gonna be alright,” another guard said in a Bob Marley accent, after Brown – who lives in the Florida Keys – was told he would be sent “back” to Jamaica.

The SPLC – along with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of Florida, and the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP – sued Ramsay today for violating Brown’s constitutional rights and Florida state law by illegally holding him in the county jail on an ICE detainer.

Ramsay, on behalf of Monroe County, Florida, signed a BOA with ICE in February to detain people suspected of being undocumented immigrants. Ramsay’s unquestioning compliance with ICE’s request led to Brown’s illegal detention, according to the lawsuit.

The sheriff’s office – which runs the jail – easily could have confirmed Brown’s claim that he was an American citizen and should have released him, even though ICE had asked the sheriff’s office to detain him, the SPLC and its co-counsel said in their lawsuit.

The lawsuit represents the first test of whether BOAs protect counties from liability for unconstitutionally arresting and detaining people.

“ICE has tried to turn local law enforcement agencies into its force multipliers for years,” said Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Basic Ordering Agreements are ICE’s latest attempt to turn county sheriffs into de facto immigration agents, with the promise that the sheriffs can’t be sued when they violate people’s constitutional rights. It won’t work. BOA or no BOA, Sheriff Ramsay violated Peter Brown’s rights, and he will be held accountable.”

With the BOA in place, Ramsay apparently felt no hesitation about carrying out an ICE detainer on a man who repeatedly claimed to be a U.S. citizen and offered to produce proof. Instead, in exchange for $50 from ICE, Ramsay upended Brown’s life, according to the lawsuit. 

“No person should have to endure what Mr. Brown endured,” Bauer said. “He was threatened with deportation and mocked, and his pleas for release were ignored. The county blatantly disregarded Mr. Brown’s constitutional rights, in unquestioning compliance with ICE’s request.”

Citizen nearly deported

Brown turned himself in to the county jail on April 5, 2018, for a probation violation after testing positive for marijuana. He expected to be in jail for only a short time until he could pay bail and be released back to his job and community.

But that’s not the way his arrest unfolded.

As part of Monroe County’s routine booking procedures, jail employees took Brown’s fingerprints and sent them to the FBI, which forwarded them to ICE. The same day, ICE sent a fax to the county, requesting that Brown be held for an additional 48 hours beyond the time he would have been released on the probation violation, according to the complaint.

The ICE order asked that Brown be detained until he could be deported to Jamaica. An online inmate locator for the sheriff’s office showed that Brown had an ICE detainer lodged against him, and it included an oddly inaccurate physical description: It said that Brown was seven feet tall, when in fact he stands at only five feet, seven inches.

The county’s inmate file confirms, in many places, that Brown is a U.S. citizen. It lists his place of birth as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in capital letters. It also shows that Brown had a valid Florida driver’s license, which is only available to U.S. citizens and non-citizens who have legal authorization to be in the United States.

But the county never investigated Brown’s claim of citizenship or otherwise took steps to ensure that he would not be held on the ICE detainer.

Even though Brown told several county employees that he is a U.S. citizen, and filed numerous complaints with the county stating that he was improperly detained, county employees told him he would be detained anyway because of the ICE request.

Eventually, a county judge ordered the reinstatement of Brown’s probation and his release from jail. Instead, sheriff’s deputies handed him over to ICE agents, who took Brown from the jail to Krome Detention Center in Miami, where they were preparing to deport him to Jamaica. Brown, who is gay, was particularly afraid of being sent to Jamaica because he was aware of incidents of homophobic violence documented there, according to the complaint.

Birth certificate found

However, on April 27, 2018, Brown’s roommate – whom Brown had called from jail about the ordeal – found his birth certificate in a drawer in their home, and emailed it to an ICE officer.

After realizing that Brown was, in fact, a U.S. citizen, ICE officers released him, but they took away all the documents they had given him regarding his deportation.

Brown became severely depressed after his release because of his time in detention and the demeaning treatment he had received from county jail employees, according to the lawsuit.

Brown’s detention caused him to lose his job working in a restaurant. Because of the emotional fallout from his illegal detention by the sheriff’s office, he was unable to search for a new job immediately upon release, and went without work for approximately two weeks.

The complaint says the county violated Brown’s Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” because the officers who detained him did not have probable cause to hold him beyond the time he should have been released on the probation violation.

The county also violated Florida law against false imprisonment, according to the complaint.

Citizens can’t be deported

Brown’s ordeal is not unique, according to the complaint.

ICE has placed immigration detainers on hundreds – and possibly thousands – of American citizens, even though U.S. citizens are clearly not subject to removal or immigration detention, the lawsuit states, citing studies by the Cato Institute, NPR and Northwestern University.

The SPLC seeks to stop collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement under BOAs by challenging the BOA program before ICE attempts to expand it beyond Florida.

Though Brown is a U.S. citizen, and therefore is not subject to removal from the U.S., he said he hopes this lawsuit will help all people caught in the deportation machine.

“It’s shocking and not right to believe that somebody can lose their human rights and have all dignity stripped away at the simple deliverance of a paper or signing of a form,” Brown said.