Montana Justices Hear Arguments About Immigration Detainers

Jan 8, 2020
4:57 PM

Montana Supreme Court Justice Dirk Sandefur, right, questions Maureen Lennon, attorney for the Montana Association of Counties, arguing on behalf of the Lincoln County Sheriff, on Wednesday, January 8, 2020, in Helena, Mont., during arguments on whether local law enforcement officers have the authority to arrest people for alleged civil violations of federal immigration law. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The ACLU of Montana is asking the state Supreme Court to rule state law does not allow local law enforcement officers to arrest people for alleged civil violations of federal immigration law. The court did not immediately rule after hearing arguments Wednesday.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Lincoln County in October 2018, after Agustín Ramón —a dual resident of Mexico and France— was arrested for stealing prescription medication from a neighbor’s house in Eureka in August 2018.

His bail was set at $25,000, but he did not post bond because the sheriff said he would comply with a Department of Homeland Security request to detain Ramón on their behalf for another 48 hours after any potential release date.

Ramón pleaded guilty to burglary in January 2019, was given a six-year deferred sentence and deported to France. He spent 203 days in jail.

The ACLU is appealing a ruling by District Judge Mike Cuff, who rejected a request for a temporary restraining order and an injunction that sought to prevent Lincoln County from detaining Ramón if he posted bond.

Lincoln County argues the case is moot because Ramón is no longer being held.

A similar effort to obtain a restraining order in Gallatin County was denied by District Judge Holly Brown, who said inmate Luis Soto López hadn’t posted bail so he wasn’t being jailed on the immigration hold. Soto López then posted his $500 bail on a misdemeanor charge in March 2019 and was quickly turned over to federal immigration officials. Brown then declared the case moot because Soto López was no longer in the county’s custody. That case was put on hold while Ramón’s case is decided.

The ACLU argued Wednesday the Supreme Court should still rule on the merits of the Ramón case because it is of public importance, the same thing could happen to someone else and it is likely to evade judicial review during the 48 hours a suspect could be detained.

“Plaintiffs like Mr. Ramón are in a catch-22—facing expedited transfers to federal custody, but only able to show those transfers are unlawful by pursuing the deliberative judicial process,” the ACLU wrote. “Practically speaking, they are highly unlikely to have their valid legal claims adjudicated by the court while still in custody.”

Dan Galindo, a staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project based in New York City, far right, argues before the Montana Supreme Court, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

Attorney Maureen Lennon with the Montana Association of Counties, which is defending Lincoln County, argued the Supreme Court should rule the case moot because Ramón never posted bond, so he wasn’t held on the detainer, and the court can provide no remedy to him.

The issue has been raised in two counties and does not rise to the level of public importance, Lennon said.

“This court protects the rights of individuals,” Justice Laurie McKinnon said. “And one individual who’s freedom is deprived is significant for this court to take interest in.”

“The issue is gone. He is deported,” Lennon responded. “This is about: Is this a significant public concern at this point on this record? Otherwise it’s just an advisory opinion.”

“An authoritative determination by the court on the merits of the case would actually help folks like the Lincoln County sheriff,” ACLU of Montana attorney Alex Rate said after the hearing. “The primary purpose of litigation challenging immigration detainers is… to make sure that these folks aren’t being unlawfully arrested and… to provide guidance to county officials so that they can do the right thing.”

Department of Justice Attorney Francesca Genova argued, in support of Lincoln County, that the court should uphold the sheriff’s cooperation with immigration detainers, which are recognized under federal law.

Lawsuits in Colorado and Massachusetts led to rulings that officers had no authority under state state law to honor civil immigration detainers. Some local governments have made damage payments and some settled immigration detainer cases before lawsuits were filed, the ACLU notes.

“I don’t think this is any secret that this is a whistle stop along the way the ACLU is going from state to state to get state courts, based on state law, to find these immigration detainers unlawful,” Lennon said.

“If we’re going to be faulted for representing people in need and marginalized folks who are being held illegally, then that’s fault I’m perfectly happy to take,” Rate said after the hearing.