Peter Sean Brown was illegally detained in Florida’s Monroe County jail for deportation despite his repeated pleas to authorities that he was a U.S. citizen and the county’s own jail file showing that he was born in Philadelphia. The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Brown, whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated due to the illegal detention.
Brown’s detention was the result of Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay’s careless and aggressive collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of a Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA) between the agencies. The Monroe County sheriff was among more than a dozen Florida sheriffs who signed BOAs in January 2018 to hold people for ICE in exchange for $50 per detained person.
BOAs are an attempt by Florida sheriffs and ICE to shield counties from liability for holding people on ICE detainers, which are requests by ICE to a state or local government to re-arrest and detain an individual for up to 48 hours after state law requires the person be released. Multiple federal courts, however, have ruled that it is unconstitutional for local law enforcement agencies to keep people detained for ICE once their criminal cases have ended.
In April 2018, Brown turned himself over to county authorities for a probation violation and was booked into the jail. Instead of releasing him after his state case was over, he was turned over to ICE for imminent deportation to Jamaica – a country where he had never lived and knew no one.
Brown repeatedly told county employees that he was a U.S. citizen and could not be deported. He offered to produce his birth certificate. His friend and co-worker called the jail on his behalf to relay the same information. Brown filed multiple written grievances explaining that he was born in the United States and could not be held for ICE. In addition to showing that he was born in Philadelphia, the county’s jail file also showed Brown had a valid Florida driver’s license, which can only be obtained by U.S. citizens and noncitizens with legal authorization to be in the United States.
County employees ignored his pleas for weeks, mocked him and led him to believe that he would soon find himself in a Jamaican prison. The county did nothing to investigate his citizenship or determine whether he was, in fact, a noncitizen. Brown would have been deported had it not been for the last-minute intervention of a friend who sent a copy of his birth certificate to an ICE agent.
The county violated Brown’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure 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, according to the complaint. Law enforcement officers cannot ignore evidence that negates probable cause, nor can they refuse to obtain readily discoverable facts that would release the subject of an arrest. Yet that is what happened to Brown. The county also violated Florida law against false imprisonment, according to the complaint.
Despite finally being released, Brown continues to suffer from this experience. After losing his job due to being detained, the emotional fallout from his illegal arrest prevented him from searching for a new job immediately after release. He went without work for approximately two weeks until he found a new, lower-paying job. He also continues to suffer emotionally from the fear that he could be sent away from his family and friends.