Sheriff's immigrant raids in Panhandle - unconstitutional?

07/05/07 Seán Kinane
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In April, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen created a so-called Illegal Alien Task Force and began to target construction sites in order to arrest undocumented immigrant workers. Deputies in patrol cars pull up to a construction site and then chase and arrest anyone who runs away. WMNF’s Seán Kinane reports that civil libertarians and immigrant rights advocates think the sheriff may have crossed a legal line.

Elise Shore is the southeast regional counsel for MALDEV, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She describes the raids occurring in the Florida panhandle county.

“We have received a number of inquiries regarding the sheriff’s office in Bay county conducting raids on certain construction sites and in some cases running after people who, when they see the sheriffs arriving, start to run. And the sheriffs see the people running … “

Benjamin Stevenson is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida. He said there could be at least two problems with this type of raid. One is that it was conducted by the Bay County Sheriff rather than the federal immigration authorities that have jurisdiction. The Sheriff is trying to enforce a Florida law that prohibits employers from hiring an undocumented worker. But Stevenson says a federal law has preempted the Florida law.

“The Florida law was passed in 1972. Subsequently Congress, in the mid-80s spoke to this issue directly and vested specific authority and jurisdiction …”

Stevenson says the other reason the raids could be a problem is that there may not have been a reasonable suspicion to stop the workers who were fleeing and investigate them, what is known as a ‘Terry stop.’

“A Terry stop must be predicated upon a reasonable suspicion of a criminal activity. …”

But running from a construction scene probably does not constitute ‘reasonable suspicion,’ according to Stevenson.

“Running from law enforcement upon seeing them from a high-crime area would …”

MELDEV’s Shore says she thinks the raids might be based on a person’s appearance rather than suspicion of any crime that has been committed and agrees that the practice might be unconstitutional.

“It’s not known to be a high-crime area, you know, it’s a construction site. …”

Shore thinks the raids could be a way to intimidate immigrants.

ACT Shore

Besides it being potentially unconstitutional, another reason why having local law enforcement act as immigration officers is a bad idea, according to Shore, is that it might cause immigrants to not call the police when they need help.

ACT Shore

Some jurisdictions, such as Miami-Dade, are prohibiting their local police from performing immigration enforcement that should be the role of federal officials.

ACT Shore

The ACLU’s Stevenson says that besides the legal reasons, the Panhandle raids also go against the values of the American people.

ACT Stevenson

Earlier this week the Miami Herald reported that the Bay County Sheriff McKeithen had asked Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for an opinion on the legality of the sheriff’s immigrant raids. But a spokesperson for the Attorney General told WMNF today that they have not received a request for a legal opinion from the Sheriff and cannot issue an opinion without a request.

For WMNF News, I’m Seán Kinane

ACLU of Florida

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Terry v. Ohio (“Terry stop”) on FindLaw

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

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