Immigrants and citizens sue L.A. County for illegal detentions

Staff Attorney Jennie Pasquarella explains that every year thousands of people are detained in Men's Central on ICE holds. + Enlarge Image
Duncan Roy was detained in Men's Central Jail for 89 days on an ICE hold. + Enlarge Image
Case : Roy v. County of Los Angeles

Six people have brought a landmark class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Baca and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) on grounds they are or were illegally detained in the jails and stations of Los Angeles County Jail for days, weeks, or months after they were entitled to be released because they are the subject of “immigration holds.” Immigration holds, sometimes called “immigration detainers,” are notices issued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requesting that an individual in local custody be held pending further action. Unlike warrants, they are issued without any judicial determination of probable cause, and they are frequently issued in error.

The lawsuit addresses two related practices of the Sheriff’s Department:

(1) Detaining people beyond their release date solely on the immigration hold.

(2) Refusing to allow pretrial detainees to post bail to secure their release from jail if they have an ICE hold.

Some 2,100 inmates each day (or 14 percent of the daily jail population) have ICE holds lodged against them in the L.A. County Jails. These inmates spend on average nearly three weeks longer in L.A. County Jails than inmates without immigration holds, despite being, on average, better candidates for pretrial release or other diversion programs. In 2011 alone, LASD over-detained nearly 20,000 people without legal authority due to immigration holds when they otherwise would have been released from custody.

While immigration holds are requests from ICE that LASD voluntarily hold them beyond their release date to wait for ICE to pick them up, LASD treats them as mandatory orders and detains anyone subject to an ICE hold for days after their release date. These detentions violate the U.S. Constitution and state law.

“Our Constitution guarantees that law enforcement cannot jail residents without probable cause to believe they’ve broken the law,” said Jennie Pasquarella, ACLU/SC staff attorney. “But LASD holds thousands of people each year beyond their release dates, simply because ICE says they would like to investigate whether they may be removable. In this country, the government can’t lock someone in jail at the start of the investigation, it can only do so if investigates and finds good cause to do so.”

Until now, LASD has refused to allow detainees with an ICE hold to post bail, even when bail had been set by a court. In response to a pre-filing demand letter sent by plaintiffs’ attorneys, LASD recognized that individuals subject to ICE holds should be allowed to post bail, have sent bulletins to watch commanders clarifying this rule, and are working on revising policies and data systems to prevent unlawful detentions in the future.

“We are very pleased LASD has agreed to alter this practice in response to our demand letter, but it never should have been happening in the first place,” said Kate Desormeau, staff attorney at the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the ACLU. “ICE’s immigration hold practices, especially under the disastrous “Secure Communities” program, have imposed serious harms upon cities and counties across the nation. But it is L.A. County that is responsible for rubber-stamping ICE’s requests and locking up tens of thousands of people without legal authority to do so.”

LASD has not yet agreed to stop detaining people subject to ICE holds after they are eligible for release from custody because they have posted bail, their sentences have ended, they have been acquitted, or the District Attorney or the court has dismissed criminal charges against them.

Lead plaintiff Duncan Roy, a noted British filmmaker, spent 89 days in Men’s Central Jail because the LASD repeatedly refused to allow him to post bail set by the court because Roy was subject to an erroneous ICE hold. His bail bondsman attempted countless times to post bail to secure his release but each time the LASD jailers told him he could not post bail because of the ICE hold. While detained by LASD, Roy requested numerous times the opportunity to speak with ICE to explain that he was in the country legally and the hold was erroneous. ICE never came. Roy was detained in the “gay dorms” in Men’s Central Jail, where he was denied medical care for recent prostate and colon cancer. After nearly three months in jail, ICE lifted his immigration detainer on humanitarian grounds and LASD finally permitted his bondsman to post bail. For those like Roy, who were denied the right to post bail, the suit seeks only damages.

“It’s important that people realize that this could happen to anyone,” said Roy. “It’s not just undocumented immigrants. I’m lucky that I can get out and be heard — many of the people I met in there can’t.” For those like Roy, who were denied the right to post bail, the suit seeks only damages because of LASD’s agreement to change its practices on bail.

In recent years, LASD has alone detained more individuals on immigration detainers for the purposes of assisting the federal government with its deportation efforts than any other county in the nation, and indeed more than any other state except California and Texas. It has done so without legal authority in outright disregard for the detainees’ constitutional rights.

“We call on Sheriff Baca to respect the Constitution and immediately cease detaining people on the basis of unlawful ICE hold requests,” said Jessica Karp, Staff Attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “This massive unconstitutional detention is a symptom of the criminalization of immigrants, a dangerous trend that must be reversed.”

The plaintiffs, who represent the tens of thousands of people who have similarly been illegally detained in L.A. County, are represented by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC), the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project (ACLU IRP) and the law firm of Litt, Estuar & Kitson LLP.