Federal Judge Calls a Critical Part of Texas' "Sanctuary Cities" Crackdown Unconstitutional

Posted By Michael Barajas on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 3:10 pm

The same San Antonio federal court judge who will soon decide whether Texas can enforce its new law banning so-called "sanctuary cities" just explained in a separate ruling why a major portion of the law appears to be unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia ruled on Monday that the Bexar County Sheriff's Office violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure when jailers detained an undocumented immigrant for more than two months in 2016 after a misdemeanor charge against him was dismissed. Lawyers for the man had challenged the Bexar County Sheriff's Office's longstanding practice of granting so-called immigration "detainers," routine requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for local jails to hold people suspected of federal immigration violations, even if their local charges have been dismissed or otherwise resolved. Lawyers across the country have argued that such requests are often flawed, haphazard and fall well below the legal standard of a warrant or judge’s order.

This week, Judge Garcia concluded that the case of Julio Trujillo, who court records show was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend in January 2016, is an example of how the detainer system can lead to warrantless, unconstitutional detention. Trujillo's lawyers say he spent a total of 76 days in Bexar County lockup after his charge was dismissed because of a detainer request ICE had lodged with the county. In his Monday ruling, which was first reported by the Express-News, Garcia said the county had wrongly assumed that ICE detainers, which are usually over alleged civil immigration violations and not criminal matters, constitute probable cause. He wrote that the "routine detention of such individuals made it inevitable that it (the county) would engage in warrantless detention of individuals who were not suspected of any criminal offense."

Lawyers challenging the state's new immigration law, Senate Bill 4, say the ruling should prove useful as cities and counties across the state sue to block the law from going into effect on September 1. Under SB 4, local officials who don't comply with all ICE detainers risk being booted out of office or even criminally charged.

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which last week sued the state on behalf of the City of San Antonio to block SB 4, said Garcia's ruling this week bolsters the argument that the law would force local cops to violate the constitution. "This gives us a clear, specific example of how SB 4 forces officials to violate the Fourth Amendment, to detain people in violation of the constitution," she told the Current on Friday.

Changes in how Travis County handled ICE detainers earlier this year (that jailers would only comply if a suspect was accused of a serious or violent crime, like sexual assault, murder or human smuggling) are what initially fueled Gov. Greg Abbott's war against "sanctuary" jurisdictions ahead of the legislative session. Abbott made eradicating "sanctuary cities" a priority item for the session, and the resulting bill he signed into law last month opens the door for any cop in the state to inquire about immigration status in any routine police encounter, like a traffic stop. The law even applies to college and university police departments.

While Bexar County officials recently voted to join San Antonio's lawsuit over SB 4, the local jail is still complying with ICE detainers that civil rights lawyers say are unconstitutional. "I think this decision handed down by the judge makes it pretty clear that we’ve been violating people’s rights in some instances," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the Current on Friday. He said county officials are meeting with the District Attorney's Office to discuss how to respond to the ruling. Ultimately, Wolff conceded, the decision over ICE detainers falls to Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who hadn't responded to our requests for comment by Friday afternoon. Bexar County commissioners court recently voted to join San Antonio's lawsuit against SB 4.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Tommy Calvert told us that the county "has no choice but to change how we're doing things" because of the court ruling. He says officials need the flexibility to change policies without fear of retaliation from the state. He says this week's ruling underscores why SB 4 is so damaging. Calvert called it one of the more "cynical" bills he's seen come out of the legislature, yet another state attempt to override local control. "They didn't even try to tailor the law to the constitution," Calvert said. "They didn't care."

Trujillo's attorney, Lance Curtright, says his client's case shows how the debate over SB 4 isn't abstract. Trujillo immigrated to the country when he was 4 years old, attending grade school in Chicago and high school in Atlanta before he moved to Texas. His parents are U.S. citizens, as are two of his children and his grandchild. Other than the misdemeanor charge that landed him in jail and was ultimately dismissed, records show no other criminal history. Court documents do, however, indicate that he was deported in late 2001 (it’s unclear when he re-entered the country).

Curtright says Trujillo was supporting his girlfriend and her two children when he was arrested and detained for more than two months without charge last year. “My girlfriend was kicked out of our apartment because she could no longer afford it,” Trujillo said in an affidavit filed in court. “We had a three-bedroom apartment which was completely furnished, and she had to sell all our furniture to make ends meet.”

Curtright says Garcia's ruling, which comes weeks before the judge hears arguments to block SB 4 from going into effect, makes it clear that police can't detain someone solely because they're suspected of being undocumented. "Simply being undocumented in the United States is not a criminal act, and therefore they can't just detain you for it without a warrant," he said.