TAMPA — Ten months ago, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister stood among a dozen or so Florida sheriffs to announce a new arrangement with federal immigration officials to deal with a legal quandary.
The new agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the sheriffs said, would serve as a workaround for the legally dicey practice of holding suspected undocumented immigrants in the jail for up to 48 hours after the inmates would otherwise be eligible for release on their local charges.
The two-day window gives ICE agents more time to arrive at the jail and take immigrants into federal custody for possible violations of civil immigration law.
Chronister's agency was to be one of 17 taking part in a pilot program that ICE hoped would spread throughout the state and country.
But Chronister would later decide, quietly, not to participate after all.
Chronister made the decision several weeks after the news conference "after a thorough review of the document and discussion with our legal staff," spokeswoman Cristal Nuñez said in an email last week.
Nuñez said a pending federal case in Miami-Dade County challenging these immigration detainer requests "should provide law enforcement agencies with detention facilities clearer guidance on how to proceed with immigration issues" in Florida.
"It is more important to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office," Nuñez said, "that the community we serve has confidence in knowing that regardless of citizenship status, one can call for any assistance or services needed without fear of being deported."
Meantime, though, the Sheriff's Office continues to honor ICE detainer requests, a practice that already has been successfully challenged in court.
In 2014, the first federal court rulings found that the ICE requests did not give jail operators legal authority to hold inmates after their local charges were resolved. Doing so violated the detainee's Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizures, the courts found.
The vast majority of the nation's 3,100 local jails — most of which are run by local sheriffs — honored the detainer requests. But more than a dozen court rulings across the country have dissuaded even red-state sheriffs who want to cooperate with ICE from honoring requests because they worry that doing so makes them vulnerable to civil rights lawsuits. Some suits have resulted in six-figure settlements.
To give sheriffs legal cover, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri helped develop the new protocol as a representative of the National Sheriffs' Association and Major County Sheriffs of America.
As part of the agreement, ICE sends the detainer request along with a civil arrest warrant and a booking form that transfers custody of the detainees from the local jail to federal immigration authorities. At that point, the jail's only role is housing the detainee, Gualtieri has said. Sheriffs are paid up to $50 to hold the inmate for up to 48 hours.
Of the 57 sheriffs offices that run jails in Florida, 31 have signed the so-called basic ordering agreement with ICE, according to the agency spokeswoman. Asked to comment on Chronister's decision, the agency noted in a statement that the Sheriff's Office is still honoring detainer requests and that the agreement "is an additional tool to help counties" do that.
The Tampa Bay Times asked the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office what specific issues or concerns lawyers had with the agreement but the office provided no additional detail.
Sheriff's offices in Pasco and Hernando counties have also signed the agreement.
Immigration attorneys have said the agreement does not provide sure-fire legal protection against lawsuits, though it has yet to be challenged in court. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has had a similar process in place for three years and it has yet to draw a lawsuit, Gualtieri said last week. He declined to comment on Chronister's decision against participating in the agreement.
The case cited by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, Creedle v. Gimenez, stems from the jailing of 18-year-old Garland Creedle Turner Guilford at the Knight Correctional Center in Miami-Dade. Creedle paid his bail shortly after his arrest during a domestic dispute, but county jail officials failed to release him and instead held him for immigration officials, according to the complaint.
That case and a class action suit challenging detainers are both set for trial next year, said Rebecca Sharpless, director of the University of Miami School of Law's Immigration Clinic. The clinic is co-counsel in both cases. The agreements between ICE and the sheriffs are not at issue in either case.
Victory for the plaintiff in these cases would bolster existing case law that already says sheriffs' offices honoring detainer requests are violating inmates' constitutional rights, Sharpless said. She sees a contradiction in the approach of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office — claiming a desire to avoid stoking immigrant fears about being deported while at the same time honoring ICE detainer requests.
"The federal government cannot force Hillsborough County to honor detainer requests," she said. "It is a choice they are making ... and they're doing so despite the fact that they're deterring people worried about deportation from calling law enforcement.
"They recognize this problem yet they're voluntarily holding people for ICE."
Times Staff Writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 494-8148. Follow @tmarrerotimes.