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Court hears appeals of ruling that exempted Huntington Beach from state ‘sanctuary’ law

Demonstrators protest against Senate Bill 54, a California “sanctuary state” law, during a Huntington Beach City Council meeting in April 2018.
(File Photo)

Attorneys for California, the city of Huntington Beach and community groups argued before a panel of appellate judges Wednesday over appeals prompted by a lower-court ruling last year that determined a “sanctuary state” law infringed on Huntington Beach’s rights as a charter city.

State Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Eisenberg told associate justices Raymond Ikola, Richard Fybel and Thomas Goethals of the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana that the decision by an Orange County judge overlooked that the 2017 law, Senate Bill 54, is a matter of state concern, which would supersede municipal affairs.

For the record:

3:46 PM, Oct. 24, 2019This article originally stated that Judge James Crandall’s 2018 ruling exempting Huntington Beach from Senate Bill 54 applied to all California charter cities. The decision applied specifically to Huntington Beach, though it gave other charter cities a basis not to comply with SB 54.

The California Supreme Court established a four-part test to determine what constitutes a municipal affair.

Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates argued that the California Constitution bars state legislators from imposing prohibitions on the city’s police department to force compliance with SB 54, officially called the California Values Act, which in many cases prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying federal officials about the impending release of immigrants in custody who may be deported.

“If the state is correct and the four-part test applies and the state prevails, it essentially rewrites the Constitution,” Gates said.

“The Supreme Court of California has never applied the four-part test to this” type of case, he said.

“The California Constitution allows the city to control its own police department,” Gates said in an interview after the hearing. SB 54 “interferes or undermines that because it means to tell our officers what and what not to do.”

But Eisenberg said the law has the “purpose of promoting trust between law enforcement agencies and the community ... they serve.”

Activists in Huntington Beach’s Oak View neighborhood, which is predominantly Latino, have said their neighbors are reluctant to interact with the Huntington Beach Police Department out of fear that local law enforcement officials are participating in federal deportation programs.

SB 54 deals “with a problem whose dimensions go beyond any one city’s boundaries,” Eisenberg added, pointing out that “what happens in one police department spills over into other jurisdictions.”

Orange County Superior Court Judge James Crandall determined in September 2018 that the law is unconstitutional as it applies to charter cities, which are run by a charter adopted by local voters.

Gates had sued to challenge SB 54 earlier that year after getting approval from the Huntington Beach City Council.

Several other Orange County governments also have taken steps to oppose the state’s sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants.

Crandall said the law infringes on local governments’ authority to practice policies they know are appropriate for themselves. Cities have a “better view and better ability” to oversee their needs in certain areas, he said.

The ruling made Huntington Beach exempt from complying with SB 54 and made it the first city to successfully challenge the law in court.

The state attorney general’s office filed a notice of appeal in November.

Eisenberg said the lower-court ruling undermined the “trust and community policing model that is infused within the act.”

“If a charter city can opt out ... what will happen to the trust that is supposed to be built by this law?” he said.

In January, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an appeal on behalf of residents, workers and community organizations in Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos. The ACLU Foundation of Southern California, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the law firm Latham & Watkins are representing the plaintiffs.

The wave of opposition in Orange County to SB 54 started in March 2018 when Los Alamitos, also a charter city, passed an ordinance to opt out of the law. The county’s other charter cities are Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Irvine, Newport Beach, Santa Ana and Seal Beach, according to the League of California Cities.

In another hearing Wednesday before the same panel of judges, lawyers representing Oak View Comunidad and Los Alamitos Community United argued in their appeal, which Huntington Beach motioned to dismiss.

“They don’t have any actual standing; they don’t have any skin in the game,” Gates said. Four of the plaintiffs in the appeal are U.S. citizens.

Latham & Watkins attorney Samir Deger-Sen, representing Oak View Comunidad, argued that case law demonstrates that associations have standing to bring cases involving their members.

Oscar Rodriguez, co-founder of Oak View Comunidad and a plaintiff in the case, said the SB 54 exemption has a potential chilling effect on undocumented immigrants that affects their families and other community members.

“We are using our privilege as U.S. citizens to bring forth this case on behalf of our community,” Rodriguez said.

The court will return an opinion on each appeal by Jan. 21, according to court records.

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