A lawsuit challenging the arrest of a U.S. citizen on an erroneous immigration detainer is calling attention to a pilot program paying Florida sheriffs $50 a head for helping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Florida on Monday alleges Monroe County sheriff’s deputies illegally arrested Peter Brown on a detainer request from ICE.
Brown is a U.S. citizen born in Philadelphia, but the lawsuit said employees of Sheriff Richard Ramsay threatened to deport Brown to Jamaica and refused to investigate his citizenship.
The complaint accused Ramsay of infringing on Brown’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure as well as false imprisonment, a violation under Florida law.
Brown’s troubles began April 5 when he turned himself in at the sheriff’s office for a parole violation after testing positive for marijuana. He didn’t expect an extended stay but spent 22 days in custody.
The sheriff’s office forwarded Brown’s fingerprints to ICE as part of a routine procedure, and the federal agency responded with a request to hold him “beyond the time when he/she would otherwise have been released” for unspecified reasons.
Ramsay issued a statement Tuesday calling Brown’s detention an “unfortunate case of mistaken identity by ICE” and said he had no legal authority to release Brown after receiving the ICE detainer. He said the BOA program amounts to a two-day hold.
“The purpose of the payment is to ensure that no local tax dollars are being spent on housing those in ICE custody. The payment goes directly to Monroe County and is not kept as part of the Sheriff’s Office budget,” he said in the statement.
Brown was repeatedly humiliated and his protests that he was a U.S. citizen were continually ignored by deputies, the complaint said.
Read the lawsuit:
One of the incidents detailed in the suit came after Brown learned he was scheduled to be transferred to Miami’s Krome Detention Center, an immigration jail, for deportation.
“During the transfer procedure, he again notified jail staff that he was a U.S. citizen. He signed all documents by writing ‘U.S. Citizen’ after his name. Jail staff again mocked him,” the complaint said. “One of them told Mr. Brown ‘Yeah, whatever mon, everything’s gonna be alright’ in a Jamaican accent.”
He was unceremoniously released after a roommate emailed Brown’s birth certificate to ICE officers at Krome.
The suit was filed by attorneys with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Amien Kacou, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida who specializes in immigration cases, said Brown reported what had happened to him days after his release. The attorney referred to ICE’s information databases as “notoriously unreliable.”
“We’re not suing ICE. We’re suing the local officials who make the mistake of relying on ICE despite evidence of the unreliability of those databases,” Kacou told the Daily Business Review. “We know that many U.S. citizens and permanent lawful residents have been caught into this dragnet.”
He cited “a policy in place of ignoring evidence and blindly processing those requests without probable cause.”
Watch the video on Brown’s plight:
Besides seeking damages for Brown’s troubling encounter with Ramsay’s officers, the suit also targets the Basic Ordering Agreement, or BOA, between the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and ICE.
“The BOA scheme, which provides the sheriff with $50 per arrest, is an attempt to put a new gloss on local arrests for ICE,” the suit said. “But the BOA changes nothing about the unlawfulness of the arrest in this case.”
Kacou and Sarah Rich, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, said the agreement is part of a larger ICE detention pilot program with law enforcement offices around Florida.
“A number of counties signed up for this pilot program that launched in 2018,” Rich explained. The SPLC attorney said the BOAs are ”an attempt by ICE and sheriffs who want to collaborate with ICE” to circumvent federal rules holding law enforcement accountable for detaining individuals.
“When sheriffs collaborate with ICE in this way and hold people not for any criminal reason — but just so ICE can pick them up — that violates their Fourth Amendment rights,” she maintained. “We hope that more counties in Florida won’t sign up for the program once they see that it doesn’t actually protect them” from legal liability.
Kacou and Rich’s sentiments were shared by Gibson Dunn attorney Jonathan Soleimani.
“In this case, the Sheriff’s Office stubbornly ignored numerous red flags, including their own records, indicating that Mr. Brown was a U.S. citizen and therefore not subject to removal or detention on an ICE detainer,” the Los Angeles attorney said. “Their decision to do so violated Mr. Brown’s constitutional rights, which of course carries legal consequences. The sheriff’s agreement with ICE does not change this reality.”
Kacou said his client understands his lawsuit carries a “larger message” beyond his own “quest for justice.” Should the lawsuit be successful, he hopes sheriff’s departments will realize they are legally liable for their detainment practices “if they’re rational,” he said.
“We believe the lawsuit will prove that [ICE's] promise is nonsense,” he said. “We would like to make sure that local officials do not get a chance to essentially hide behind federal officials.”