Mass. high court ruling a victory for due process, civil rights

Eva Millona testifies in support of the Safe Communities Act.
Eva Millona testifies in support of the Safe Communities Act.

‘Nothing in the statutes or common law’ of the state allows police or court officers to hold people on civil immigration detainers.

BOSTON, July 24, 2017 – Today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that state officers – such as police, sheriffs and court officers – do not have the authority under state law to detain people on a civil immigration matter.

The case before the Court, SJC-12276, Sreynuon Lunn vs. Commonwealth, involved a man who was held on a voluntary civil detainer request from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) after being arrested but then having all charges against him dismissed.

The Court found that holding someone under such circumstances constitutes an arrest under state law. No federal law gives state officers the power to make such an arrest, and based on a detailed review, the Court concluded that “nothing in the statutes or common law of Massachusetts” does, either.

“We are very pleased by the Court’s decision,” said Eva A. Millona, executive director of MIRA. “It provides much-needed clarity for Massachusetts law enforcement at a time when they’re under a lot of pressure from the federal government to detain non-criminal immigrants and support deportation efforts.”

The Lunn decision highlights two key facts about immigration enforcement (emphasis added):

  • While some immigration offenses, such as crossing the border illegally, are crimes, “Being present in the country illegally… is not by itself a crime. Illegal presence without more is only a civil violation.”
  • Federal immigration detainers “are simply requests … not commands, and they impose no mandatory obligations on the State authorities to which they are directed.” The Court noted that the U.S. Attorney had conceded that compliance with detainer requests is voluntary, adding that even if the federal government wanted to make it mandatory, “the Tenth Amendment likely would prevent it from doing so.”

“The Court reaffirmed what we’ve said all along: that immigration enforcement is a federal civil matter, and ICE detainers are voluntary, civil requests – not arrest warrants,” Millona said. “Those are the facts, and any discussion about how law enforcement interacts with ICE should start from those facts.”

A key provision of the Safe Communities Act, which clearly separates state and local law enforcement from federal immigration matters, would forbid holding people on the basis of a civil ICE detainer. Some legislators had said they wanted to see how the Lunn case was decided before proceeding with the bill.

“Now that the Court has resolved the civil detainer issue, we can focus on the many other benefits of passing the Safe Communities Act,” Millona said.

Along with barring law enforcement from holding people based on ICE civil detainers, the Safe Communities Act includes crucial due process provisions, to ensure that immigrants being questioned by ICE know they have a right to stay silent and to call a lawyer, for example.

The Safe Communities Act would also bar so-called 287(g) agreements between law enforcement agencies and ICE that deputize officers to enforce immigration law, at their agencies’ expense. Not only do such agreements shift costs from the federal government to state and local budgets; they also make immigrant communities fear police, undermining public safety.

“Today’s decision was a victory for immigrants and for all who value civil rights – but detainers are only part of the problem,” said Millona. “Now let’s get serious about passing the Safe Communities Act. We look forward to productive discussions at the State House in the coming weeks.”

Read the full decision text, as well as statements on the decision from Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey and the ACLU of Massachusetts.