By Jason Howe
You have to hand it to Sheriff Lee Baca. He sometimes arrives at the correct conclusion. It’s just not very often that he does it quickly, easily or without a lot of coercion – i.e. being sued.
The latest case in point is his announcement this week that he will no longer turn over low-level, non-U.S. citizen offenders to the custody of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Just like the LAPD. Just like other local agencies across the state. Just like California Attorney General Kamala Harris finally announced that no agency is required to do.
We at the ACLU of Southern California have been trying to get that message to Baca for years, but to date, he has been one of the most adamant supporters of complying with the federal “Secure Communities” program, or S-Comm for short, insisting adamantly, but incorrectly, that the sheriff’s department was legally obligated to comply with all detainer requests. In theory, the program targets illegal immigrants arrested for serious crimes for deportation. In practice, S-Comm sweeps up those arrested for minor offenses, crime victims, even U.S. citizens. Under S-Comm, ICE agents send a request – a “detainer” or hold – to local law enforcement officials asking them to detain someone in their custody while ICE mulls over possible transfer to federal custody – and deportation proceedings. The program has led to the deportations of more than 80,000 California residents in less than three years, most of whom represented no threat to public safety.
But many law enforcement agencies go far beyond the requirements of S-Comm, holding detainees much longer than the 48 hours mandated by ICE – even when they have yet to be accused of a crime or when a judge has ordered their release. In October, we filed suit on behalf of British filmmaker Duncan Roy and a number of others illegally detained by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Roy spent nearly three months in detention; like many other detainees, deputies did not allow him to post bail even though a judge had ordered his release. Policies like that have resulted in the detentions of thousands of people who pose little or no threat to our communities, clogging jails that are already bursting at the seams and at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to local law enforcement agencies. And while any change to S-Comm rules would certainly help, the fact remains that detainers are not a warrant and are almost always unconstitutional. The correct response is for those local agencies to recognize that complying with ICE holds is voluntary -- and to decline to honor them.
So we welcome Baca’s Sacramento-induced epiphany. We really do. He joins LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other law enforcement agencies across the state who agree with the attorney general that local agencies can craft their own response to S-Comm. But there’s a better way than the patchwork of policies this creates -- a bill vetoed by Governor Brown in September and reintroduced in the legislature this week. The TRUST Act would limit action on ICE holds to those convicted of a serious or violent felony. It would prevent local agencies from spending scarce resources to foot the bill for federal detentions and would improve public safety by encouraging community members to work with police to investigate crimes. A coherent statewide police serves all of us better. Baca has been a harsh critic of the TRUST Act – we’re hopeful his recent conversion on S-Comm will help him see it in a new light.