MIAMI - Law enforcement officers throughout Florida now can access U.S. immigration records to check the fingerprints of immigrants in their custody, officials said Tuesday.
The system is part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's "Secure Communities" program to improve the identification and removal of illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes in the United States.
Twenty-three states now participate in the program. The agency plans to make the system available nationwide by 2013.
Before the system was activated in Florida, fingerprints taken at local jails were checked only against FBI criminal records.
Now fingerprints also will be checked against immigration records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration authorities will be alerted if there's a match.
The system had been activated in 24 Florida counties since last year, and the rest of the state's 67 counties were added last week.
One example authorities cited Tuesday was the case last year of a man arrested in Hillsborough County for carrying a concealed weapon, resisting an officer and providing a false name to law enforcement.
Despite a long list of aliases, fingerprint records from Homeland Security showed that the man had overstayed a tourist visa and was wanted for attempting to murder a police officer.
The man was convicted in December on the concealed weapon charge and will be deported after his yearlong prison sentence, authorities said.
The expanded fingerprint search was an overdue improvement, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera.
Within about four hours of being alerted to a match, authorities say they will begin to determine whether an individual in police custody is subject to deportation.
If so, ICE would monitor the case. Illegal immigrants charged with major drug offenses, murder, rape or kidnapping would be flagged as priorities.
If the person is convicted, ICE would assume custody when the prison sentence is complete.