Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

Even on hot-button immigration, sheriffs can play fair

Score a small victory for justice evenly applied, even when it involves the incendiary issue of immigration.

In an America in which some hold fast to a send-'em-all-back-and-let-some-other-country-sort-'em-out philosophy, sheriffs around the country — and in our own back yard — have struck an interesting tone with a notable change in jail policy.

Inmates who were also immigrants were routinely held an extra two days — even though they had been granted bail and could come up with the cash — at the request of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency known far and wide by the chilly acronym ICE.

This 48 hours gave ICE extra time beyond an initial fingerprint check to determine if an inmate was here illegally and whether he or she should be deported.

And does any of that sound wrong to you? That someone could spend extra time in jail for the crime of being born somewhere else?

Consider the case of a Hispanic construction worker in Pennsylvania who was arrested along with other employees after the contractor on the site sold drugs to an undercover detective, according to court documents. (The worker was later acquitted.) Bail was posted, but he wasn't allowed out because of an ICE hold on suspicion that he was a suspected "alien" subject to deportation. Days later, authorities relented, saying he was indeed a U.S. citizen born in New Jersey.

A court would later opine that such federal holds are requests to local law enforcement, not the law.

Which put sheriffs asked to carry this out in a bit of a pickle: Is it okay to keep someone who can make bail jailed without probable cause — a warrant or deportation order? Because that doesn't sound all that American to me.

As the Times' Laura C. Morel reported this week, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, like sheriffs in Hernando and Pasco before him, recently decided no more.

"The federal government appears to be asking us and other sheriffs around the country to do something that it itself does not have the legal authority to do," he says. "Hold this person for 48 hours while we conduct this investigation." Of course, the jail will continue to submit fingerprints and hold people for whom there is legal cause, he says.

Immigration issues are separate from what the right thing is to do legally, Gualtieri says. "There's not much more constitutionally that we do that's more important than depriving somebody of their freedom."

Which put me in mind of a big trial I covered years ago that ended in a surprise acquittal. The case was over and the defendant's lawyer wanted him to walk out of the courtroom doors instead of being taken back to the jail for processing. The judge intervened, saying this was officially and legally a free man who didn't have to go anywhere with anyone. The judge did not say: It's America. But it was implied.

Gualtieri said that from the looks of a recent sheriffs meeting, his colleagues appear to be split about 50-50 on the ICE issue. Hillsborough, for instance, will continue to honor the holds, though they're keeping an eye on related court decisions, a spokesman said.

But jailing people when there is legal cause and releasing them when there isn't is appropriate and legally prudent. American, even.

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