Florida sheriffs illegally held Philly native as undocumented immigrant, lawsuit alleges

Several groups have filed suit on behalf of Peter Sean Brown, 50, a Philadelphia native who was held on an immigration detainer in Florida, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was mistaken for a Jamaican immigrant eligible for deportation. (Viviana Bonilla Lopez/ACLU)

Several groups have filed suit on behalf of Peter Sean Brown, 50, a Philadelphia native who was held on an immigration detainer in Florida, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was mistaken for a Jamaican immigrant eligible for deportation. (Viviana Bonilla Lopez/ACLU)

Several groups have filed suit on behalf of a Philadelphia native who was held on an immigration detainer in Florida, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was mistaken for a Jamaican immigrant eligible for deportation.

Peter Sean Brown, 50, was born in Philadelphia and lived in the region before moving to the Florida Keys a decade ago.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, Southern Poverty Law Center and law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP filed a complaint in U.S. court on Brown’s behalf against the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, alleging it violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unconstitutional seizure, as well as Florida state law against false imprisonment.

Brown, who turned himself in for a probation violation after testing positive for marijuana, arrived in jail April 5. The next day, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement faxed a detainer request, asking the jail to hold Brown for an extra 48 hours. The request stated ICE had a final removal order to deport Brown to Jamaica.

“I didn’t even realize what ICE was at the time,” said Brown.

While he was detained, the food service worker said authorities sang the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” theme song — about a transplanted Philadelphian — to mock his claimed connection to the city.

When Brown completed his sentence related to the parole violation, a judge ordered his release April 26. But Monroe County authorities rearrested Brown. The following day, ICE transported him to Krome Service Processing Center, on the outskirts of Miami, where federal immigration authorities hold immigrants they seek to deport. There, ICE officers investigated Brown’s citizenship claims and released him.

It turns out that removal order was for a different man — one more than a foot taller and with a different birth date than Brown.

How did this happen?

Under what’s called a “basic ordering agreement,” the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office receives detainer requests from ICE requesting the department hold a defendant past the point that individuals would normally be released. For ICE, these detainer requests are an important tool, one that allows the agency to arrest and deport eligible immigrants in a way that is safer and more efficient than making at-large arrests.

Critics of the practice, such as the ACLU, say it lacks safeguards to protect citizens and winds up violating their constitutional rights.

Brown had filed two written complaints to the sheriff’s office while in jail.

“It is not up to us to determine the validity of the ICE hold. That is between you, your attorney  and ICE,” responded Lt. Joseph Linares, according to the complaint.

The suit alleges that the sheriff’s office ignored Brown’s insistence that he is a U.S. citizen and offers to provide a birth certificate — and that a guard mocked him by singing the ’90s sitcom theme and speaking to him in faux Jamaican patois.

Brown, who lost his job as as server at Fogarty’s Restaurant in Key West as a result of his detention, has suffered ongoing depression and fears of being re-arrested. As a gay man, Brown has extra reason to be afraid of being sent to Jamaica, where members of the LGBT community frequently face violence.

Neither Monroe County Sheriff Richard Ramsay nor representatives of the office have responded to requests for comment.

Cases where U.S. citizens wind up in ICE custody happen regularly, although the numbers are much smaller than the overall ICE detention population of around 40,000 on any given day. A 2016 National Public Radio analysis of ICE detainers found hundreds of citizens are wrongly held on immigration detainers in local jails or immigration detention centers every year — and they face high barriers to proving their citizenship from jail or immigration detention.

“You’re powerless. You’re stuck,” Brown told the Key West Newspaper. “The really strip you of your dignity.”

Legal liability sometimes drives local law enforcement agencies to reject detainer requests, earning them the label “sanctuary jurisdictions” from federal officials.

In 2014, U.S. citizen Ernesto Galarza won a similar ACLU-backed suit against the Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, prison and received more than $100,000 in damages. The prison then changed its policies about honoring ICE detainers without a court order.

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