Citing a recent federal court ruling in Oregon that the practice infringes on constitutional protections, Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday announced that the city of Los Angeles will no longer honor federal "detainer letter" requests to hold people suspected of being in the country illegally for potential deportation. The ruling, and similar dominoes-like responses by local governments, are proper, and affirm a basic civil liberty: the right to due process.
This is how the letters work: Local police arrest someone on suspicion of committing a crime, and the basic information on the arrest and the suspect's fingerprints are sent to the FBI and on to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be run through its database. In theory, immigrants in the country illegally get flagged, and ICE sends a letter asking the local agency to hold the detained person for up to 48 hours after he or she would otherwise be released — on bond, or simply because police decided not to pursue the initial arrest — to give federal agents time to take custody.
The problem, though, is that there is no probable cause to continue holding the person, and no court order, just suspicions raised by a database check.
Garcetti said Monday that city police will detain people for potential deportation only if the federal request has been approved by a judge. Police Chief Charlie Beck said the new policy would not lead to criminals being released back into the community, and that it could enhance public safety by building trust between immigrant communities and the police.
Maybe. But the underlying issue here isn't about crime. It's about due process, and unlawful detention. In the Oregon case, Maria Miranda-Olivares was held in jail despite a bail order, and again after she had served a short jail sentence for violating a restraining order. She sued, and a federal judge ruled in April that Clackamas County, which detained her without a court order, could be held civilly liable for constitutional breaches that arose from honoring an ICE detainer letter.
So in addition to the constitutional principles, local governments now have a liability incentive to ignore ICE detention requests. And they should. More than 100 local governments already have announced variations of the policy to refuse the requests, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. And now add the city of Los Angeles.