ACLU Announces Settlement of Case to Protect Immigrants' Rights in Sonoma County
San Francisco – The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) announced a settlement today with the Sonoma County Sheriff and County of Sonoma that will limit collaboration between Sonoma County and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"Innovative changes to the Sheriff's policies adopted under this agreement will, we believe, increase public safety and reduce ineffective tactics," said Julia Harumi Mass, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. In a report sent to sheriffs across California earlier this year the ACLU of Northern California made a series of recommendations to minimize costs related to immigration-based police practices in favor of public safety. "This settlement illustrates some of the fair and effective law enforcement choices sheriffs can make in California."
Under the agreement, the Sonoma County Sherriff's office will no longer participate in joint field operations with the federal agency ICE unless ICE refrains from arresting or taking custody of persons solely based on a suspicion that they are unlawfully present in the country. Local peace officers and ICE continue to have the ability to detain or arrest individuals who are suspected of criminal activity or who are thought to pose an imminent threat to public safety.
The Sheriff also agrees not to volunteer information about people who are in the County's custody due solely to traffic infractions or driving without a license to ICE. Under the settlement, the Sheriff will also post a notice in jail – in English and Spanish – informing detained immigrants of their rights under federal law. Plaintiffs sought this notice due to concerns that prolonged detention under immigration detainers undermines immigrants' rights in their immigration proceedings.
"The immigrant community in Sonoma County suffered under the old policies and practices," added Richard Coshnear of the plaintiff Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County. "We look forward to working with Sheriff Freitas and other county officials to further limit immigration consequences from interactions with county agencies and to lift the burden of federal immigration enforcement from the shoulders of county employees. Sonoma County is not responsible for our nation's flawed immigration policy, and it should not waste limited resources targeting hardworking community members."
Two plaintiffs who alleged they had been unlawfully detained received a monetary settlement from both Sonoma County and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"The purpose of this lawsuit was to ensure that police and communities work together and not at cross-purposes," added Al Pfeiffer of Latham & Watkins, who litigated the case pro bono. "Counties play a real and important role in protecting all residents from crime. They have a better shot at finding actual criminals when they remove the focus from people who are not a threat to anyone. The first step will be to rebuild trust."
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of three individuals and the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, a local community organization. For three years, they claimed, sheriff deputies and ICE agents stopped and searched people who appeared to be Latino, interrogated them about their immigration status, and detained them in the county jail for federal agents – at local expense – based on detainers ICE issued solely for suspected civil immigration violations without any criminal charges.
After the suit was filed, ICE issued a policy clarifying that its agents could only issue immigration detainers to persons already in state and county facilities based on criminal law arrests, signaling its intent to curb practices challenged in the case.
The Committee and the County of Sonoma reached this settlement despite their disagreement about a few matters, including whether immigration detainers are mandatory orders. The Committee and the ACLU believe detainers are merely "requests" enforceable at the discretion of the Sheriff.