Walla Walla and Kitsap are some of the first confirmed counties in Washington to change their policy following a recent court decision in Oregon that found that such detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are not commands that local jurisdictions have to abide by, and that sheriffs could be liable for constitutional violations for holding people past the time when they would otherwise be released.
"It significantly reduces the possibility that Walla Walla County will get sued for similar conduct that got Clackamas County sued," Sheriff John Turner told the AP on Tuesday.
Clackamas County was sued after a woman - who was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to 48 hours in jail - was detained for more than two weeks due to an ICE hold. A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the county that detained the woman violated her rights under the 4th Amendment by prolonging her incarceration without probable cause. She had been eligible to leave after posting bail.
Nearly 30 counties in Oregon and several in Colorado are changing their policy following the court ruling.
In Washington, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project are putting pressure on sheriffs to stop honoring the so-called detainers. The two groups sent letters to 38 county sheriffs, except in King County, telling them the federal court ruling opens the possibility of lawsuits.
"Anyone could file a lawsuit on behalf of individuals who are unlawfully detained, not just our organizations. But we will certainly be monitoring how these jurisdictions react to the ruling and be prepared to assist individuals whose constitutional rights are violated," said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
For years, immigration agents have combed jail rosters looking for immigrants who are illegally in the country. The Obama Administration has said its immigration policy is heavily focused on deporting immigrants with criminal records, and enhancing programs, like Secure Communities, which checks fingerprints for violations, around those goals.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work cooperatively with law enforcement partners as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who are public safety threats," said ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz in a statement.
The issue around holding immigrants in jails has been rallying point for immigration advocates. In Washington, a measure that would have prohibited local jurisdictions from detaining immigrants unless the person had been convicted of a serious crime was pushed in Olympia. The bill died, but a similar measure was approved in California and the number of detainers has dropped significantly.
Last year, King County joined numerous jurisdictions and states around the country that have stopped or limited their compliance with detainer requests. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Maryland are considering similar legislation.
Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he's worried counties will get sued, and disagreed with that part of the court ruling.
"They believed they were acting in good faith and legally," he said.
In Walla Walla, the new detainer policy issued said the Oregon case clarified the federal law around detainers, saying they are "requests" and not commands.
"As a result of these decisions, the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office shall cease to hold individuals in custody when the only authority for such custody is a request contained in a DHS ICE immigration detainer," the order said.
The number of detainers in Walla Walla County has ranged from around 70 to 50 in the last three federal fiscal years, Turner said.