Massachusetts court: State officers cannot hold immigrants for ICE

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled Monday that local and state law enforcement officers do not have the authority to arrest and hold a person solely on the basis of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer.

This is likely the first such ruling in a high state court, according to Massachusetts ACLU staff counsel Laura Rótolo.

“As far as we know this is the only state court that has ruled on its own state law authority,” Rótolo said.

While many states and municipalities issue guidance to local law enforcement authorities, the Massachusetts ruling goes one step further. In essence, it means that officers do not have the authority under state law to administer ICE detainers.

An ICE detainer is issued on an undocumented person who has been arrested on local criminal charges when ICE believes there is probable cause to remove the person from the United States, according to the ICE website. If a local law enforcement agency complies with the request, when the person is released from local custody, ICE immediately takes the person into custody.

The case was raised to the Supreme Court as an important legal question that arose out of a criminal case, Rótolo said.

Rótolo said the Massachusetts ruling was based purely on law, including some case law from as long ago as the 1700s and 1800s, rather than public policy issues cited by state attorneys general and other officials in guidance to law enforcement agencies.

“The court was not talking about public policy,” Rótolo said. “It was not talking about what’s best for communities, it was not even talking about this current political environment.”

The Massachusetts attorney general commended the court’s decision.

“Today’s decision is a victory for the rule of law and smart immigration and criminal justice policies, and a rejection of anti-immigrant policies that have stoked fear in communities across the country,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement.

A man with no country

The case, Commonwealth v. Lunn, centered around Sreynuon Lunn, who was to be tried in Boston Municipal Court on one count of unarmed robbery, according to court documents. Lunn was in the United States illegally, ICE said. The day before Lunn had been arraigned, in October 2016, ICE issued a detainer against him.

When Lunn’s trial date arrived in February 2017, the case was dismissed by a judge because the prosecution was not prepared. According to court documents, Lunn’s attorney at the time requested the judge release Lunn from custody despite the outstanding ICE detainer, because the criminal case had been dismissed. The judge declined to take action on that request and Lunn was held by court officers. A few hours later, Lunn was transferred into federal custody in accordance with the ICE detainer request, according to court documents.

Lunn’s legal team appealed the judge’s decision to hold him for ICE, and when the case reached the state Supreme Court, the ACLU and other agencies filed amicus briefs in the case. The ACLU is representing Lunn in an ongoing federal case regarding his immigration status, Rótolo said. Lunn is no longer in federal custody, according to Rótolo.

While this case had to do with court officers, Rótolo said the case has implications for other kinds of state law enforcement officers, like municipal police officers, because all of them share the same arrest powers under Massachusetts law.

“Massachusetts law simply does not authorize court officers or law enforcement officials to hold an individual [on an ICE detainer],” Rótolo said. “From now on anyone who holds an individual on an ICE detainer would be violating the law.”

New precedent?

In light of President Donald Trump’s executive orders that grant wider power to immigration authorities, some cities and states have moved to tell law enforcement officials that fulfilling ICE detainers is not a priority.

A May report issued by the attorneys general of New York, Oregon, the District of Columbia, California, Rhode Island, and Washington argued that local law enforcement agencies have the ability to decide whether they should comply with federal immigration detainers based on factors like community trust, allocation of financial and personnel resources, and legal liability.

Certain cities have opted to become “sanctuary cities,” meaning that local law enforcement will not comply with ICE detainer requests. More than 200 cities did not honor requests from ICE to detain individuals in 2015, according to ICE Director Sarah Saldaña.

Rótolo said Massachusetts may be the first of more to come.

“I think it’s possible that we’ll see other state courts looking at their state law as well,” Rótolo said.