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ACLU files lawsuit against Florida sheriff’s office for nearly deporting U.S. citizen

"I am and have always been a citizen of the United States."

The ACLU this week filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center against a Florida sheriff for unlawfully detaining and nearly deporting a U.S citizen. (PHOTO Credit: ACLU YouTube, screengrab)
The ACLU this week filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center against a Florida sheriff for unlawfully detaining and nearly deporting a U.S citizen. (PHOTO Credit: ACLU YouTube, screengrab)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced Monday that it had filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) against a Florida sheriff’s office for unlawfully detaining and nearly deporting a U.S citizen.

Peter Sean Brown was born in Philadelphia and has lived in Florida for the last 10 years. According to the complaint, Brown reported to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in April for violating his probation for a low-level marijuana offense and was subsequently detained longer than was required at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE believed Brown was a Jamaican undocumented immigrant of the same name, and was intent on deporting him. Despite his repeated pleas that he was a U.S. citizen with a birth certificate and a Florida driver’s license, Monroe County jail officers told him he was being sent to a country he had only been to once on a cruise.

“I am and have always been a citizen of the United States,” Brown said in a video released by the ACLU. “I did not even realize what ICE was at the time and reading through it I realized it had something to do with immigration, and at that point, I made a comment of, ‘There must’ve been a mistake.'”

According to Brown, ICE officers mocked him with a Jamaican accent, telling him, “everything is gonna be alright, mon.” After he told the ICE officers he was from Philadelphia, they mocked him with the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song.

The complaint states:

The Sheriff’s Office ignored all the indications that it was illegally detaining Mr. Brown. It did nothing to investigate his citizenship. It did not contact ICE to pass along this urgent information, or ask for a review of Mr. Brown’s files. It did not seek any further information from Mr. Brown or anyone else. It simply held Mr. Brown, in violation of his constitutional rights and after he was entitled to release under state law, so that he could be picked up by ICE and deported from the country where he was born and has lived his entire life. If not for the last-minute intervention of a friend who sent a copy of his birth certificate to an ICE agent, Mr. Brown would have been illegally deported because of the Sheriff’s actions.

Brown’s case is unfortunately far from unique; cases like this become the norm when local sheriffs offices cooperate with ICE detainer requests. Detainer requests are a key tool used by ICE to apprehend individuals who come in contact with state and local law enforcement, in order to subsequently place them in federal custody.

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According to the ACLU, there were multiple red flags in Brown’s ICE detainer that police should have caught. ICE, for example, claimed Brown was 7 feet tall when he was really only 5 feet 7 inches. The ICE detainer also listed an incorrect birthdate.

Nearly 300 jurisdictions from California to Connecticut have adopted some form of “sanctuary” legislation that prohibits state and local police involvement from enforcing immigration law or bars a police officer from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status. A sanctuary policy requiring state and local police to not honor ICE detainer requests for suspected undocumented immigrants would likely have protected Peter Sean Brown from ICE.

“In the last several years, ICE has placed immigration detainers on hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens, even though U.S. citizens are clearly not subject to removal or immigration detention,” the ACLU lawsuit states. “As a result, officials like the Sheriff who consistently effectuate ICE detainer requests are constantly at risk of carrying out unconstitutional seizures.”

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay is one of 17 Florida sheriffs who participate in an ICE detention pilot program that pays counties $50 for each person they hold for ICE. This method of policing has resulted in multiple U.S. citizens being swept up by the agency, having to prove their citizenship in order to not be deported to a country in which they’ve never lived.

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New Jersey recently implemented one of the country’s most comprehensive pro-immigrant pieces of legislation, which protects immigrants, both documented and undocumented alike, from potentially harmful interactions with federal law enforcement.

Under the state’s new Immigrant Trust Directive, New Jersey police “cannot stop, question, arrest, search, or detain any individual based solely on actual or suspected immigration status” and are barred from “ask[ing] the immigration status of any individual, unless doing so is necessary to the ongoing investigation of a serious offense….” The directive also places restrictions on when and how immigration enforcement agents can enter local jails and notifies individuals in custody of their rights with regards to immigration.

ThinkProgress has reached out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment on Brown’s case.