Florida ‘sanctuary cities’ bill could expose police to lawsuits

The bill is a favorite for House Speaker Richard Corcoran. But it would force police to violate years of federal court decisions.
[AP photo]
[AP photo]
Published Jan. 4, 2018|Updated Jan. 4, 2018

A bill in the Florida Legislature to outlaw "sanctuary cities" would also force some sheriffs and jail workers to break with judicial precedent, opening cities and counties up to civil rights lawsuits.

The bill, championed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, would require police to honor all requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants – even though federal judges have repeatedly ruled such holds unconstitutional.

It's "flat-out unlawful," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

You can’t do that,” he said of requiring police to abide by a state law that conflicts with federal rulings. “That doesn’t withstand federal law.”

With strong backing from Corcoran, however, the bill is expected to pass the House. That will allow Corcoran to later tout his conservative credentials in a GOP primary where an overwhelming majority of voters support tougher measures.

His two opponents in the Republican primary have already been outspoken on immigration. Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam has accused Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum of "crazy talk" for criticizing the mass deportation policies of President Donald Trump. Gillum responded back that Putnam's views on the topic are "all racist."

In a single tweet, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has been endorsed by Trump, who has made cracking down on illegal immigrants a cornerstone of his administration. DeSantis hasn't formally declared he's running for governor, but he's raised his profile by going on Fox News and criticizing Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

On Tuesday, Corcoran tweeted a video featuring clips of Fox News personalities where he vowed to pass a bill "to keep our Florida communities safe from dangerous sanctuary city policies" during the first week of the session.

"We must not allow Florida to follow California," said Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

The bill is a longshot to become law. In the last two years, versions of the bill didn't even make it to Senate committee hearings. But with Corcoran's Senate rival, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, out of the picture after resigning over sexual harassment accusations, the bill's odds might be better this session.

If so, it would not only change how some police interact with ICE, but it would prevent any communities from changing it.

Casting a vote in favor of any "sanctuary" policy — essentially, anything that impedes immigration agents from doing their jobs — could subject them to thousands of dollars in fines and allow the governor to remove them from office.

The bill's House sponsor, Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, compared it to a city council going against federal law by voting to legalize cocaine.

"Would that be a legal vote?" Metz said. "Once you make something expressly illegal, they (officials) should be held accountable for that."

Yet Metz could not point to any city in Florida that would qualify as a "sanctuary city."

It's unclear how many police departments would have to change to comply with ICE detainers. A 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida found at least 30 police departments that limit how often they honor detention requests, but many have changed their policies since Trump has become elected, including Miami-Dade County.

When police arrest someone, they often check with ICE to see if ICE would like to keep them. ICE will sometimes ask for the person to be held for 48 hours after they would normally be released, giving agents enough time to pick up them up or check out their immigration status.

But at least a dozen federal judges have ruled that if the 48-hour hold is not accompanied by a warrant, it is nothing more than a request, and since a request is not a legal basis for holding someone, it's a violation of their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"It puts localities in a terrible bind," said Shalini Agarwal, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Florida office. "Either they have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines, or else follow this sanctuary cities bill and expose themselves to legal liability."

Texas passed a similar bill last year, and a number of lawsuits were filed challenging it. A federal judge has temporarily blocked major portions of it, including requiring police to honor detainer requests.

Metz said his bill complies with the law, since ICE has recently changed how it handles detainer requests. He said concerns about being sued should prevent someone from releasing a criminal onto the streets.

"There's no bill that anybody in this country can write that can prevent the filing of the lawsuit," he said.

But Gualtieri, who went to Washignton, D.C. last year to talk with ICE officials about this subject, said he wants to see a permanent solution.

"My position on it is, anything that prohibits jurisdictions from adopting sanctuary policies as it relates to criminal illegal aliens is a good thing," he said. "There should be no issue or debate with the criminal illegals."

But, "We believe that everybody should be in a position where they lawfully cooperate with ICE."