Several Tampa Bay area sheriffs have decided recently not to automatically jail all immigrants as requested by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri decided this week that he will allow arrested immigrants who can post bail to leave jail. Previously, the jail would hold immigrants for two days as a courtesy to federal officials while they investigated whether they wanted to try to deport the inmate.
The sheriffs in Pasco and Hernando counties had previously decided the same thing. The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is still holding immigrants at the request of ICE.
Other sheriffs around the nation have also ended the two-day holds after judges have ruled that the practice violates the rights of immigrants.
Gualtieri said he is ending the two-day holds because he fears legal entanglements.
"What I have been trying to determine from ICE is whether they are asking us to do something that they themselves don't have legal authority to do," Gualtieri said. "It's putting us in a potential jam."
In 2009, the Pinellas jail began submitting inmate fingerprints to a database run by ICE used to detect undocumented immigrants. If ICE needed more time to determine if an inmate was here illegally, agents asked the Sheriff's Office to detain the person for up to two days, regardless of whether they could post bail.
Many of the inmates who are able to post bail are charged with minor crimes.
Gualtieri based his decision on a lawsuit in Pennsylvania in which a man of Puerto Rican descent was arrested on a cocaine charge and not allowed to post $15,000 bail due to an ICE hold. Days later, federal agents realized he was born in New Jersey. He was also acquitted on the drug charge.
The man sued several entities, including ICE and Lehigh County in Pennsylvania. The suit was dismissed, but an appeals court ruled in March that a federal hold "merely authorizes the issuance of detainers as requests," but is not the law, court records show.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office recently sent a letter to ICE stating it would no longer honor the holds unless the agency could provide probable cause, such as a warrant or deportation order.
In 2012, a daily average of 75 Pinellas inmates were flagged by ICE, totaling 2.4 percent of the average daily inmate population of 3,100. The Sheriff's Office could not provide updated numbers Wednesday.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office stopped honoring holds without probable cause in June after it learned of the court rulings from the Florida Sheriff's Association.
A Hernando County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said the agency was aware of the recent rulings and updated its jail policies to reflect the changes.
Gualtieri said he recently attended a national sheriff's conference, where some sheriffs said they still honored the ICE holds, but others didn't.
"It was being handled inconsistently. Everybody was confused," he said. "This is a very new issue … everybody is trying to figure out what the right thing to do is."
That inconsistency is apparent in Tampa Bay, where the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office will continue to honor ICE's requests.
"We have not changed our policy and don't anticipate any changes at this time," agency spokesman Larry McKinnon said in an email.
ICE spokeswoman Tammy Spicer said in a statement Wednesday that the agency "anticipates" local authorities to continue enforcing holds.
"When law enforcement agencies turn over criminals into ICE custody rather than into the community," the statement read, "it helps protect both public safety and the safety of law enforcement."
Local immigration lawyers welcomed Gualtieri's decision.
"I think it's awesome," said attorney John Ovink, who has offices in Tampa and Dade City. "I think it's also correct because the Sheriff's Office is not an extension of Homeland Security."
Ramon Carrion, a Clearwater attorney, said he has had clients who were flagged by ICE at the Pinellas County Jail. Most were being held for "less serious offenses," including traffic-related charges.
"We have people that are detained needlessly," he said, adding the recent rulings "really make the most sense. It's clear from an administrative point of view, and from a constitutional point of view."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.