ACLU Sues ICE and Sonoma County Sheriff for Unlawful Detentions and Racial Profiling

Federal Lawsuit Asserts Sheriff’s Department Exceeded Authority in Immigration-Related Arrest

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ACLU of Northern CA

San Francisco – For the past three years, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department has collaborated with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its officers to stop and search people who appear to be Latino, interrogate them about their immigration status based on their perceived race, and detain them in the County jail without lawful authority. The Sheriff’s Department and ICE have failed to notify individuals who they have targeted of their rights under the law and the charges against them, among other violations of the constitutional right to due process.

The ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC) filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of three individuals who were unlawfully detained, as well as on behalf of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, a local community organization.

"The constitution guarantees that due process and equal protection apply to everyone in this country, not just U.S. citizens," said Julia Harumi Mass, ACLU-NC staff attorney. "Our clients – and the broader community in Sonoma – are paying the price for law enforcement policies that violate fundamental rights by targeting people based on race and holding them in jail without criminal charges."

California law does not permit local sheriffs and police to enforce immigration law. But in Sonoma County, Deputy Sheriffs have arrested people suspected of violating civil immigration law, and placed them in County jail without a warrant or any criminal basis for arrest. 

"When local police act as immigration agents, they infringe on the fundamental rights of residents and create a climate of suspicion and fear that undermines public trust and public safety," said Mass. 

The ACLU charges that once they are booked in county jail, arrestees in Sonoma are typically held for more than three days without being told what the charges are against them, provided with access to legal services, told that statements they make may be used against them in immigration proceedings, or notified that they have a right to a hearing, including a hearing to determine whether they may be released on bond. Federal law requires such protections for people arrested on immigration violations without a warrant.

"Looking Latino or speaking Spanish is no reason to question or arrest a person. We live in a country where the Constitution ensures that all persons should be given fair treatment under the law regardless of the color of their skin or their accent," said Rick Coshnear of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County. “Do we really want our police to be spending resources going after people because of what they look or sound like, instead of pursuing those who threaten public safety?" The Committee operates a Know Your Rights campaign to inform the Latino community about legal rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The suit, Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County et al., v. County of Sonoma and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. It is led by Julia Harumi Mass of the ACLU of Northern California with pro bono support by Latham & Watkins LLP.

Plaintiff Christyan Sonato-Vega’s Story

In July 2007, 23-year-old Christyan Sonato-Vega and his fiancée were stopped after they had parked outside a bakery. Two deputy sheriffs approached them, saying the car had a crack in the windshield, and proceeded to question Sonato-Vega about his immigration status and whether his tattoos were gang-related. The deputies searched him, without adequate justification, before allowing him to leave. About a week later, a deputy sheriff and ICE officer confronted Sonato-Vega at his job and arrested him on the sole basis of suspected immigration status. He was held in Sonoma County jail for several days without any criminal charges against him and without notice of his right to a hearing, to legal representation, or to be considered for release on bond. 

Plaintiff Samuel Medel Moyado’s Story

That same summer Samuel Medel Moyado was arrested for public drunkenness after a night of celebrating his 21st birthday in Santa Rosa. A community college student, diligent employee and taxpayer, Medel was interrogated about his immigration status and whether he was a member of a gang during the booking process. At his court hearing, the judge told Medel he was free to leave because no charges had been filed against him, but the Sheriff’s Department moved him to another local facility and held him for an additional four days before transferring him to immigration authorities. The lawsuit challenges Medel’s prolonged detention because the regulation that ICE and the Sheriff relied on to keep him in jail was issued in excess of ICE’s statutory authority. 

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