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Sheriffs: No problems with immigration bill

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, June 17, 2019

Local sheriffs and jail officials have few, if any, concerns about legislation to help spur the handover of illegal immigrants from county jails to federal custody — despite the measure drawing opposition from sheriffs elsewhere in the state.

The state Senate is now considering House Bill 370, the Require Sheriff Cooperation with ICE act, which passed the House on party line votes in April. ICE is the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association initially opposed the bill, but announced its support for a compromise version considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

However, according to a report by The News and Observer, sheriffs in Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg counties still oppose the bill, continuing to oppose facilitating or following ICE's “detainer requests” that ask jails to hold illegal immigrants until ICE can take custody of them.

Current law provides that, when someone is arrested for a felony or impaired driving offense, the head of a jail or other detention center shall attempt to verify the person's immigration status. If they can't, they shall, “where possible,” query ICE to verify the person's status.

As first proposed, H370 would additionally require that, when a detention center receives an ICE detainer request for someone arrested — for any crime, not just felonies or impaired driving — it shall comply with “any request made in the detainer request provided by the federal government.”

The bill also states that jails can, if requested by the federal government, deny bond to a prisoner or continue to hold them if they're eligible for release, save for the detainer request.

The bill also gives federal agents access to prisoners and records, and allows for citizens' lawsuits and civil penalties against cities, counties or law enforcement agencies who don't follow H370's requirements.

The N.C. Sheriffs' Association opposed the initial legislation because of concerns about protecting prisoners' constitutional right to due process, as well as operational concerns, based on comments from its general counsel, Eddie Caldwell.

The compromise version would require more steps before a detention center would have to follow a detainer request. A staffer for a bill sponsor, Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, provided the bill's text to The Daily Advance.

The new version of the bill provides that, when ICE issues a detainer request for a prisoner, that prisoner must be taken before a “state judicial official” who “shall issue an order directing the person to be held.”

The new version also provides that, if a prisoner is otherwise eligible for release, they may be held for ICE for only four days.

The new version also doesn't provide for lawsuits or penalties against agencies who don't comply with the detainer request — but a sheriff who refused to honor a state judge's order to hold a prisoner for ICE would be removed from office.

The sheriffs of Pasquotank, Camden and Perquimans counties incarcerate prisoners at Albemarle District Jail, a regional jail facility. ADJ Administrator Robert Jones expressed no concerns about the legislation in either form.

“We're already doing this,” he said of notifying ICE and honoring detainer requests.

Some sheriffs or detention centers might be concerned that ICE could make them hold prisoners long past their release date, but Jones said that's not been a problem at ADJ. The jail gets few detainer requests — maybe three to five a year — and ICE usually picks them up promptly, he said.

Pasquotank Sheriff Tommy Wooten similarly said he had no problems working with ICE — though it's rare he needs to — but explained one concern other sheriffs may have.

He noted that detainer requests don't have the same legal weight that a judge or magistrate's order does — creating some liability for sheriffs who enforce them. The new version helps address that concern by requiring a judicial order to reinforce the detainer request, he said.

Currituck County Sheriff Matt Beickert said the old version of the bill took away some discretion from sheriffs, and warned the state should always be careful of doing that. Taking away sheriffs' rights also takes away people's rights, he said.

Beickert also said the new version appears satisfactory. Similar to other local officials, he cited no problems working with ICE and said it rarely sends his department detainer requests.

Chowan County Chief Deputy Andy Bunch said Chowan's had no issues with detainer requests either. He said other sheriffs, particularly in heavily-populated counties, may be concerned about detainer requests contributing to overcrowding in their jails. The Chowan detention center, while small at 23 beds, doesn't have capacity issues, he said. He added ICE normally picks up prisoners promptly.

According to Hall's office, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up H370 again on Tuesday or Wednesday, after which it'll be referred to the Senate Rules Committee for further action.

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