BELLINGHAM - In the wake of a civil rights ruling by a federal judge in Oregon, the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office has changed its policy on delaying the release of inmates who are suspected of having entered the country illegally.
Many other counties in Washington and other states already have done the same.
Until now, Whatcom County Jail personnel have been holding prisoners for as long as six hours beyond their normal release times, if those inmates have been identified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other federal agencies as possible immigration violators, Sheriff Bill Elfo said.
The federal immigration agency has been providing jail officials around the country with a document known as an "ICE detainer." The detainer asks local law enforcement agencies to keep a prisoner with possible immigration law issues in custody for as long as 48 hours until federal officers can get to the jail to take that prisoner.
In the Oregon case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart ruled that Clackamas County was wrong to treat ICE detainers as legally binding orders. She then found that prisoner Maria Miranda-Olivarez had been wrongfully kept in jail and was entitled to collect an amount of monetary damages still to be determined because she had been wrongly detained.
"Maria Miranda-Olivares was not charged with a federal crime and was not subject to a warrant for arrest or order of removal or deportation by ICE," the judge ruled. "The County admits that Miranda-Olivares was held past the time she could have posted bail and after her state charges were resolved, based exclusively on the ICE detainer. But the ICE detainer alone did not demonstrate probable cause to hold Miranda-Olivares."
After consulting with the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Sheriff Elfo issued a special order to his department. The order states that jail staff must not book any person solely because of an ICE detainer, and must not delay the normally scheduled release of an inmate because of an ICE detainer.
Elfo said Whatcom County "does not and has not" booked people into the county jail based solely on an ICE detainer, but some inmates' discharge has been delayed because of them.
"Our policy has been not to facilitate such requests beyond six hours," Elfo said in an email.
From now on, ICE detainers will not delay prisoners' release at all, Elfo said. Jail staffers will notify federal agencies in advance when inmates with federal detainers are being released, and it will be up to those agencies to decide if they want to send officers to Whatcom County to take custody of someone leaving the jail.
As of May 8, Elfo reported that four inmates being held on state criminal charges also were the subject of ICE detainers.
Asked about his agency's reaction to the court ruling and its effect on jail policies here and elsewhere, ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz was noncommittal.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work cooperatively with law enforcement partners throughout the Pacific Northwest as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who are public safety threats," Munoz said in an email.