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Montana Supreme Court Hears Challenge To County Immigration Detentions

ACLU of Montana Legal Director Alex Rate gives oral argument in the Montana Supreme Court Room in Helena, January 8, 2019
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
ACLU of Montana Legal Director Alex Rate gives oral argument in the Montana Supreme Court Room in Helena, January 8, 2019.

The Montana Supreme Court Wednesday in Helena heard oral arguments from a lawsuit challenging immigration detentions in Lincoln County. The decision at a later date will have broad implications for the policy and practice of sheriffs across the state. 

According to the complaint, Agustin Ramon, a dual citizen of France and Mexico, argues he was illegally jailed for more than two months in 2018 at the Lincoln County Detention Center in Libby, Montana.

The state and national levels of the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Border Crossing Law Firm, unsuccessfully sued Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe last year, arguing that the detention violated Ramon’s rights under the Montana Constitution.

In oral arguments Wednesday, ACLU of Montana Legal Director Alex Rate asked the state’s high court to rule that state law does not allow local law enforcement to detain people for alleged violations of federal immigration law.

"The primary purpose of litigation challenging immigration detainers is A: to make sure that these folks are not being unlawfully arrested and held, and B: to provide guidance to county officials so that they can do the right thing,” Rate said. 

Ramon had been booked for burglary. When his wife, an American citizen, tried to pay the court’s $25,000 bond, jail officials said they would not release him because of a federal immigration detainer.

A detainer is a written request from immigration enforcement officers, not a legal requirement, that a local jail or other law enforcement agency detain an individual for an additional 48 hours after their release date. This extra time in jail allows immigration officials to decide whether to take the individual into federal custody to begin deportation proceedings.

Ramon was deported to France last year.

Maurine Lennon with the Montana Association of Counties told Supreme Court justices Wednesday Ramon’s appeal is moot because he was never kept in jail by the detainer.

Lennon argued that Ramon’s detainment was a continued arrest from failing to pay bail for the burglary, rather than a second arrest on behalf of the immigration officials.

Justice Dirk Sandefur pressed Lennon on this point.

“But counsel, the county is telling the bondsmen that it’s futile to post bond. How else would you interpret the intent of the statement from the county to the bondsmen was?” Sandefur said. 

“That was informational. That was informational for the bondsmen,” Lennon responded. 

Lennon said ACLU’s evidence is incomplete because Ramon didn’t go through with paying the bail bond company.

Lennon also argued Montana law allows local law enforcement to hold a person on a detainer request from Border Protection.

“To my mind it flips the idea of innocent until proven guilty on its head because anybody who’s in custody and does not have an immigration detainer would be able to post bond and be free pending trial, but individuals like Ramon simply can’t," Rate said. 

He says federal immigration detainers have proliferated in the last decade. He says 135 were issued to Montana counties between 2017 and 2018.

Rate says it isn’t clear how many of those were actually fulfilled, but at least three cases in the state have challenged the use of detainers, including one that was dismissed.

ACLU Montana filed a similar class action against Gallatin County. The Soto-Lopez case has been stayed pending the outcome of this case.

It is unknown when the state’s high court will issue a decision on Ramon’s case.