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Fire On Ice

By Gretchen Giles

Getting caught being brown hasn't gotten any easier in the North Bay but a new lawsuit alleging racial profiling by the Immigration and Customs Enforement (ICE) and the Sonoma County Sheriff's department may actually change constitutional law.

With a suit brought Sept. 4 by the ACLU of Northern California on behalf of three Sonoma County plaintiffs and the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County (CIRSC), it appears that the big guns—or at least the big acronyms—are paying attention to the local sheriff department's three-year collaboration with ICE.

"When local police act as immigration agents, they infringe on the fundamental rights of residents and create a climate of suspicion and fear that undermines public trust and public safety," charges ACLU lead attorney Julia Harumi Mass.

Aiming to double up efforts, ICE agents often ride along with officers, being on the spot to detain a person who does not present adequate papers or has an outstanding warrant. As reported before in these pages, such sober reasoning does not always prevail. "They're detaining them on the color of their skin or having given a Hispanic name to an officer or anyone who looks Latino when they drive past," says Santa Rosa attorney Richard Coshnear, a member of the CIRSC. "Once detained, they may or may not have ID and turn them over to the ICE agent and the ICE agent develops probable cause for not being documented."

Coshnear contacted several agencies about client cases he was defending in 2006, most of which involved area residents of Latino heritage being taken into custody for such minor infractions as cracked windshields and then held for days without being charged. 

 "Racial profiling is a large part of the case," Coshnear explains. "Another part is what the ICE puts on people in the jail—called a detainer or a hold—is being used illegally. Congress has set up a scheme that when people are arrested without a warrant on suspicion of being in the U.S. without permission, that does not involve picking them up, say, on a Thursday, keeping them until Tuesday, and then taking them to someone to discover if they're really legally here. That's a denial of due process."

And that touches upon the Fifth Amendment, which protects everyone in the U.S., including non-citizens, from being punished without due process of the law.

The ACLU spent months researching constitutional law regarding the ICE sweeps in the North Bay and holding community meetings to hear personal stories before agreeing to take the case. "We want to show that what ICE is doing here in Sonoma County and across the country is a violation of due process, which is constitutional law," Coshnear says.

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