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Unlawful Hold: Legal U.S. resident jailed as Florida sheriff sought ICE detainer

Just hours after being arrested on a misdemeanor charge that was later dropped, Winston posted $100 bond and thought he would be released.

Under the law, he should have been set free. Instead, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in Ocala, Florida, had moved him from a holding area and decided to keep him in an overcrowded housing area for a second night while repeatedly asking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) whether it wanted to take him into custody.

Why?

Because of his nationality, and because the MCSO had a financial incentive to do so. 

The fact is, Winston – whose name has been changed for this story – is a lawful permanent resident in a state with nearly 4 million people who were born in other countries and are now naturalized citizens or legal residents of the U.S.

A legal U.S. resident from Jamaica, Winston has never been convicted of any crime. As it turned out, ICE had not requested that he be detained and had no interest in him.

But for Winston, then age 57, the August 2020 detention was not only traumatic, it was consequential. Five days later, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in a hospital emergency room.

In an effort to put an end to such unconstitutional practices, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and Zuckerman Spaeder LLP have filed suit in federal court on Winston’s behalf.

“I thought they would deport me as a criminal back to Jamaica and that life would be very hard for me there,” Winston told the SPLC. “No one asked me about my immigration status; they just assumed that ICE wanted me.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, brings claims against Marion County Sheriff William “Billy” Woods and other county employees for violations of Winston’s civil rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments and false imprisonment under Florida state law. It also asks the court to award compensatory and punitive damages.

“Federal and state laws enshrine basic principles: No one should be forcibly detained without cause, and no one should be treated differently based solely on where they were born,” said Victoria Mesa-Estrada, a senior staff attorney for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project.

Fearing backlash

Winston, the father of six children, came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 2017 on a green card. Prior to his detention, he worked part time as a certified nursing assistant in Ocala while pursuing a degree to become a registered nurse.

His ordeal began at about 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2020, when he was arrested on an alleged battery offense, a misdemeanor that was later dismissed.

The next morning, a judge set bail of $100, lower than normal because of concerns that Winston could contract COVID-19 in jail, according to the lawsuit. His family posted bond shortly before noon.

But five hours later, he still had not been released.

Marion County benefits financially from every individual it holds for ICE under a basic ordering agreement (BOA). Within this agreement, ICE promises to pay sheriffs $50 for every immigrant they arrest and turn over to the agency, for up to 48 hours of detention. The agreement pays local jails to detain individuals ICE believes are in the country illegally under civil law.

However, ICE was not interested in detaining Winston.

After MCSO had made a third offer to ICE that night to hold Winston, the federal agency responded that it could not find any immigration “detainer” (a written request that a person be held for ICE) for Winston.

Still, Winston was kept overnight in the jail’s general population, where about 50 people were in bunk beds within an arm’s reach of each other.

Just a day earlier, Woods had issued a directive, “effective immediately,” prohibiting deputies and staff from wearing face masks that could reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Less than a week after Woods issued that directive, Winston went to a hospital emergency room and was diagnosed with COVID-19 and bilateral pneumonia. He missed work over the next two weeks as he recuperated and quarantined, and suffered from a persistent cough that lasted for months.

Winston said the ordeal lingers in his mind.

“I still look over my shoulder, I’m still very careful,” he said. “I don’t want to be back inside there. The experience stays with me – and I’m still terrified. Now I hesitate to even leave my house. I just go hungry because I’m nervous to leave [for food]. I suffer daily emotional repercussions, and I’m scared for my family members, too – scared of backlash from the police.”

‘Stop doing this’

The MCSO’s practice of unlawfully detaining people who are foreign-born stems from its Warrant Service Officer (WSO) agreement with ICE.

“MCSO is well aware that they may not hold people for civil immigration enforcement without any request or authorization from ICE – i.e., unilaterally – much less when ICE specifically disclaims any such request, as it did in Winston’s case,” said Mesa-Estrada. “Their actions set a bad precedent that instills fear in the community and creates distrust in local law enforcement.”

It’s not the first time the MCSO has improperly detained legal residents, including U.S. citizens, in the absence of an ICE detainer. The new lawsuit lists six other instances since 2019. But the total number is higher than that, Mesa-Estrada said.

A report from another Florida county shows that ICE also often wrongly targets individuals. In 2019, the ACLU of Florida found that in a two-year period ending in February 2019, the agency sent 420 detainer requests to Miami-Dade County for people listed as U.S. citizens.

“In a state where at least one in five people was born abroad, [Winston’s detention] is the sad but predictable result of the proliferation of false anti-immigrant narratives in Florida politics and the related adoption of overaggressive measures like SB 168,” said Amien Kacou, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. 

Enacted in 2019, Senate Bill 168 requires counties and municipalities to stretch resources and enforce federal immigration law. The law further perpetuates anti-immigrant sentiment by prohibiting local governments from implementing sanctuary policies.

“What I’m saying is this: If you’re going to detain someone, you should carry on an investigation first,” Winston said. “I had my driver’s license that carries all of the information they needed to verify my status. But they didn’t even ask for it. All they needed was in front of them. They just assumed; that’s what made me angry – very angry.”

Winston said he wishes that the MCSO’s illegal practice of racially profiling and detaining individuals would end – immediately.  

“Law enforcement agencies are to do what they do with due diligence,” he said. “Follow the procedures of the law because anything you’re doing, you have to investigate, ask questions and get the proper answers. If they had asked me who I was, they would’ve gotten the proper answers. People die in jail. Riots happen. To be stuck in jail – even for a short time – you never know what will happen. And I just want MCSO to stop doing this.”

Top picture: (Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Flickr)