Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules State Can’t Enforce Immigration Detainers

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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The top court in Massachusetts ruled Monday that state and local police cannot hold criminal aliens in order to give immigration agents extra time to take them into custody.

The decision by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) effectively prohibits public officials in the state from honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers, which are formal requests to local jail officials to detain criminal aliens for up to 48 hours after completing their sentences.

Justices ruled that holding a person beyond the expiration of a jail sentence amount to a fresh arrest for a civil violation, which is not permitted under state law.

“Massachusetts law provides no authority for Massachusetts court officers to arrest and hold an individual solely on the basis of a Federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time that the individual would otherwise be entitled to be released from State custody,” the court wrote in its decision, according to Reuters.

The case was originally brought by Sreynuon Lunn, a refugee from Cambodia who entered the U.S. in 1985 and was eventually deported in 2008 after a series of criminal convictions, reports Reuters. Cambodia refused to accept him and he was released.

Lunn was arrested yet again in 2016 in connection with an unarmed robbery charge. Charges were dropped after Suffolk County prosecutors decided not to move forward with a trial, and Lunn was transferred to ICE custody.

Lunn’s attorney challenged the transfer on the grounds that Massachusetts law does not allow police to keep someone in custody if there are no pending criminal charges. In Monday’s ruling, the SJC said that neither state nor federal law empowers Massachusetts officials to hold a subject absent a criminal warrant.

“In short, this was a civil immigration detainer,” the justices wrote. “It alleged that Lunn was subject to, and was being sought by the Federal authorities for the purpose of, the civil process of removal. It was not a criminal detainer or a criminal arrest warrant. It did not allege that the Federal authorities were seeking Lunn for a criminal immigration offense or any other Federal crime, for purposes of a criminal prosecution.”

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers had argued ICE detainer requests are a legally established example of cooperation between local and federal law enforcement.

“You have that power,” DOJ attorney Joshua Press said during oral arguments in April, according to the Boston Herald. “As we understand it, no law has circumscribed the state or the commonwealth’s power to cooperate with the federal government in these matters.”

However, the SJC was not persuaded, arguing that state police may only make warrantless arrests for criminal offenses.

“Conspicuously absent from our common law is any authority (in the absence of a statute) for police officers to arrest generally for civil matters, let alone authority to arrest specifically for Federal civil immigration matters,” the justices wrote.

Some civil rights groups say the Massachusetts ruling could provide a model to other states looking to challenge the the practice of immigration detention requests on state constitutional grounds. The ACLU of Massachusetts praised the decision as an “important precedent” in a statement Monday.

“This court decision sets an important precedent that we are a country that upholds the constitution and the rule of law,” the group said in a statement. “This victory is the first of its kind in the nation. At a time when the Trump administration is pushing aggressive and discriminatory immigration enforcement policies, Massachusetts is leading nationwide efforts by limiting how state and local law enforcement assist with federal immigration enforcement.”

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