by Arnaud and Naja Girard
Peter Brown expected to be released from jail at the end of his 3-week incarceration for having smoked marijuana while on probation. Instead he was kept locked up in a Monroe County jail waiting for ICE to deport him to Jamaica as a criminal alien.
The problem was Peter Brown had never been to Jamaica - unless you count that one day he passed through on a cruise. He was not the infamous outlaw from the mountains of the Caribbean island. He was the Peter Brown who worked at Fogarty’s and who had been born and raised in Philadelphia. ICE had the wrong Peter Brown.
When we interviewed Peter 7 months ago (video above), he was still shaken from his ordeal; the dizzying feeling of being snatched from your life and finding yourself shackled up beside strangers in an immigration transport. “They left us sitting in that vehicle,” said Brown, “Someone defecated in the bus because they couldn’t hold it and they wouldn’t take him out… It was dehumanizing.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Brown on Monday. The federal lawsuit filed against Sheriff Rick Ramsay will make Peter Brown the poster child in their battle against what are called “immigration detainers.”
For years civil rights advocates have claimed that ICE’s practice of asking Sheriffs and jailers to keep suspected illegal aliens locked up without warrant violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.
They claim that ICE’s methods are so unreliable that an estimated 20,000 US citizens may have been marooned by those illegal detainers over the past 12 years.
Peter Brown’s claim of mistaken identity should not exactly have come as a surprise to those federal agents. They knew, you see, that their Peter Brown had died. But when their computer sent back a positive match for our Key West Peter Brown they just took his Monroe County mugshot photo, stapled it to the top of their file on the Jamaican “bandit” and asked Monroe County jailers to keep him while they made arrangements to come get him.
“This is you! This is your picture!” barked the agent at Peter, at the Krome Detention Center in Miami, pointing at the photo in the heavy file he theatrically slammed on the table.
But ACLU and SPLC attorneys are not suing the federal government. The strategy is to attack the Sheriff's cooperation with the detainer hold requests, solidified by an agreement signed 9 months ago between Monroe County Sheriff Ramsay and ICE. Sheriff Ramsay agreed to honor the controversial detainers in exchange for 50 dollars per day for each ICE detainee.
As we reported at the time, sheriffs have been put in a difficult situation: If they refuse to assist ICE they find themselves on the infamous list of “sanctuary cities” jeopardizing federal grants and contracts. (Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has several contracts, valued in the millions, with the federal government.) On the other hand, if they do honor the federal immigration detainers they become vulnerable to lawsuits for violation of the civil rights of the Peter Browns.
See Related: DAMNED IF THEY DO, DAMNED IF THEY DON'T
In the detainer hold agreement Ramsay is guaranteed that each detainer request will be issued with an accompanying “warrant.”
But at the time, the ACLU argued that the promise was a sham. They warned sheriffs that the “warrants” which, under the constitution must be signed by a judge, would in fact be signed by ICE agents themselves, giving them un-checked power to seize anyone they wanted.
The attorneys were proven right when local ICE agents simply stuck Peter Brown’s mugshot on someone else’s criminal file and told Sheriff Ramsay to keep him locked up, even after a local judge said he should be released.
The ACLU and SPLC may be trying to deter other sheriffs from cooperating and signing those agreements with ICE.
Is it unfair to target the Sheriff?
Florida extradition law is instructive. Though technically it may not apply to a federal extradition request, it does show that in Florida, situations where jailers overlook issues of mistaken identity are taken very seriously.
Under Florida Statute 941.10 no person can be extradited before he has been brought before a state judge. At that time the judge must address any claims of mistaken identity.
Under Florida Statute 941.11 a jailer who proceeds with extradition without first presenting the person to a judge commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.
But under the detainer hold scheme that Ramsay signed on to, Brown was not afforded any of those safeguards. While locked up in Monroe County’s jail Peter Brown asked everyone he saw for help and wrote 3 formal written complaints, claiming mistaken identity.
The ACLU and SPLC argue that Sheriff Ramsay has a longstanding policy of never questioning the validity of ICE detainers.
In response to Brown's complaint, the warden answered, “It is not up to us to determine the validity of the ICE hold. That is between you, your attorney and ICE.”
Peter Brown was mocked by guards, “He starts singing me all these Jamaican songs. Telling me don’t worry ‘mon’ ‘it’s gonna be alright, mon’… I am from Philadelphia!”
In the complaint, ACLU and SPLC lawyers argue that Monroe County’s Sheriff rearrested Brown and kept him locked up illegally without warrant or probable cause, in spite of direct evidence of mistaken identity.
Their own records, the complaint states, showed “that he was a U.S. citizen born in Philadelphia and had a valid Florida driver’s license.” Brown says he offered to have a friend bring his birth certificate to the jail but Monroe County’s jailers just said it wasn't their problem.
The ACLU and SPLC want to make it their problem. They are seeking compensatory damages for their client, including loss of income and mental anguish.
“One year ago today, we warned Sheriff Ramsay about the dangers of his office’s needless participation in federal immigration enforcement,” said Amien Kacou, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “The sheriff ignored our warnings and doubled down by signing on early to ICE’s latest sham — the BOA detainer scheme. With this lawsuit, we reaffirm that, regardless of ICE’s empty promises, Florida sheriffs will continue to be held accountable for doing the agency’s dirty work.”
UPDATE: Shortly after publishing we received a press release from the office of Sheriff Ramsay. Here is a quote from the Sheriff:
“Local law enforcement throughout this country has been caught in the middle of a political argument regarding immigration. Although I can’t respond as much as I would like on this case given the pending litigation, I always strive for transparency with the public, which all of us here at the Sheriff’s Office serve. This was an unfortunate case of mistaken identity by ICE regarding a subject who was initially in state custody for violating probation for a felony crime of violence against a police officer. My office was notified in writing by ICE that they had a Final Order of deportation signed by a Federal Judge for Mr. Brown. ICE additionally stated in writing they had confirmed Mr. Brown’s identity via biometrics. It is important to also note that when an inmate is held under an ICE matter, I, as Sheriff, do not have the legal authority to release that person. Though the Sheriff’s Office does not investigate immigration matters and while I cannot release detainees under ICE custody, I immediately took action when notified of this matter months ago. I ordered Sheriff’s Office detention deputies to immediately notify ICE of a detainee’s claims of citizenship and to follow up with those claims.”
The Sheriff provided several documents along with his press release.
- Documentation pertaining to the state charge of Violation of Probation.
- A document containing the Detainer Hold Request and accompanying "warrant" signed by an ICE agent, and violation of probation information.
- The agreement with ICE [called a Basic Ordering Agreement] signed in February [which we provided a link to in our article above].
One observation after reading the Sheriff's statement and looking over the documents he provided: The ACLU has long argued that when local Sheriffs cooperate with ICE in detaining individuals pursuant to detainer hold requests they are doing so voluntarily. They say there is no requirement in law that obliges them to cooperate with ICE's request. The Sheriff's statement that he does "not have legal authority to release that person" is contested by ACLU attorneys. They rely on Galarza v. Szalczyk, 745 F.3d 634, 641 (3d Cir. 2014). In fact the ACLU argues that when a state court has ordered their release, Sheriff's have no legal authority NOT to release them. Here's a legal memo from the Immigration Legal Resource Center and here's ACLU's FAQ's on ICE's new enforcement partnerships.