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Florida sheriff’s office settles lawsuit over illegal detention of US resident

A sheriff’s office in Florida reached a settlement this week in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a lawful permanent resident who was unlawfully detained and referred to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) followed a policy that automatically referred him to ICE based on his national origin and without regard to his actual immigration status. The sheriff's office settled the matter after altering its discriminatory policy of referring all foreign-born persons to ICE.

The MCSO also agreed to pay $150,000 for damages, including attorneys’ fees and costs, to the plaintiff, Neville Brooks.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.

Brooks, a lawful permanent resident residing in Florida and originally from Jamaica, was detained by the sheriff’s office in August 2020 for more than 12 hours after he posted bond and should have been released. While he was detained, he was infected with COVID-19.

“I filed this lawsuit because I felt a responsibility to help make sure the sheriff’s office does not treat anyone else the way they treated me,” Brooks said. “I am grateful the court system allowed justice to be done in my case, and I hope this settlement inspires others – citizens and immigrants alike – to not be afraid to affirm their constitutional rights, which make this country great.”

As a result of the litigation, the sheriff’s office amended its policies to:

  • Make clear that when there is no ICE detainer or warrant, no person may be held in custody or subjected to delayed release or otherwise denied release solely because they were born abroad.
  • End automatic notifications to ICE based on foreign birth alone.
  • Provide limits and guidelines for referrals to ICE.
  • Establish a process for documenting such referrals and the factual basis for them.

“This case is a clear example of how Floridians are becoming enmeshed in an unworkable, dragnet approach to immigration enforcement, leading to the illegal detention of people in Florida jails based solely on their national origin or even just perceived national origin,” said Felix Montañez, senior staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “When local law enforcement attempts to engage in federal immigration enforcement, it inevitably leads to racial profiling and undermines public safety. Law enforcement agencies throughout the state must adopt and implement policies that protect the constitutional rights of all, irrespective of a person’s place of birth.”

Brooks’ arrest stemmed from the MCSO’s practice of detaining and referring to ICE all foreign-born individuals, or individuals perceived as foreign-born, regardless of their present nationality or lawful immigration status in this country. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently explained that this kind of policy is illegal. It is also illogical. Not only are lawful permanent residents like Brooks born in other countries, so too are millions of U.S. citizens.

The sheriff’s office had no justification to detain Brooks, except for a biased presumption that he was in the U.S. unlawfully based on nothing more than his foreign birth. His records clearly showed that he had a valid Social Security number and Florida commercial driver’s license, neither of which he could have obtained without lawful status.

The MCSO participates in the federal Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program, a flawed expansion of the controversial 287(g) program rolled out during the Trump administration. This case demonstrates the dangers of the 287(g) program and other anti-immigrant state and local measures enacted in Florida in the past few years. Florida sheriffs and ICE have claimed that 287(g) and WSO agreements shield counties from liability. But the settlement makes clear that neither can protect localities from the serious risk of lawsuits and liability.

“As we face a rising tide of anti-immigrant politics in Florida, this case reminds us to hold firm to the U.S. Constitution’s promise to protect the rights of every person in this country,” said Amien Kacou, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “This is especially important in a state where immigrants make up over 20% of the population. Florida sheriffs cannot contract away their duty to the Constitution. Those who betray the history of our state by discriminating against immigrants for political gain will be held accountable.”

The case, Brooks v. Woods, was filed and settled in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Photo at top: In August 2020, Neville Brooks was unlawfully detained by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, part of the office’s practice of detaining and referring to ICE all foreign-born individuals, or individuals perceived as foreign-born, regardless of their present nationality or immigration status. (Credit: Doug Engle/USA Today Network)