Philadelphia-born US citizen was wrongly held in Florida jail at request of ICE, suit says

Immigration Law

Peter Brown.

Photo of Peter Sean Brown courtesy of the ACLU.

A man born in Philadelphia alleges in a lawsuit that a Florida sheriff wrongly held him in jail at the request of immigration authorities who wanted to deport him to Jamaica.

The suit filed by Peter Sean Brown claims the Monroe County Sheriff’s office violated his Fourth Amendment rights by doing nothing to investigate his citizenship after Brown repeatedly protested that he was a U.S. citizen and offered to provide his birth certificate. CNN, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald have coverage of the lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Key West. A press release is here.

The suit says the sheriff’s office arrested Brown, 50, “pursuant to its policy and practice of carelessly and aggressively arresting people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement under a Basic Ordering Agreement between the two agencies.”

The Basic Ordering Agreements, in effect in 17 Florida counties, pay sheriff’s $50 for each person held as a result of an ICE detainer request, according to video released by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Brown, who lives in the Florida Keys, had turned himself in to the sheriff’s office on April 5 for a probation violation after he tested positive for marijuana, the suit says. The probation sentence stems from an incident on New Year’s Eve 2016 in which Brown was accused of refusing to leave a bar and lunging at an officer during his arrest, according to the Miami Herald.

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Brown expected to be quickly released after his arrest on the probation violation so he could go back to his job in the restaurant industry. His fingerprints were forwarded to the FBI, which forwarded them to ICE, as is routine. ICE then contacted the jail and asked the sheriff to hold Brown for an additional 48 hours beyond his normal release date. According to the lawsuit, Brown was told that ICE intended to deport him to Jamaica, “a country where he has never lived and knows no one.” Brown spent the next three weeks in detention.

Brown wasn’t the only person telling sheriff’s officers they were wrong about his citizenship, the suit says. Brown’s friend and manager at Fogarty’s Restaurant also contacted the jail and told officers that Brown was born in Philadelphia, and the birth date listed for Brown was wrong. Brown’s inmate file also listed his birthplace as Philadelphia. Officers told the manager she should contact ICE, according to the lawsuit.

Brown also tried calling ICE from jail, but he was unable to reach anyone. According to the suit, the phone number listed on Brown’s immigration detainer often puts people on hold for an hour or more. He also filed two formal complaints with the sheriff’s office. According to the Miami Herald, jail employees mocked him with a fake Jamaican accent and sang the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song to him, with its lyric “In West Philadelphia, born and raised.”

A judge ordered an end to Brown’s detention for the probation violation at an April 26 court hearing, yet Brown was returned to jail for the ICE hold. He was transferred to an immigration detention center the next day. ICE agents agreed to look at Brown’s birth certificate, and Brown’s roommate emailed a copy. At that point, ICE “hastily arranged for his release,” the suit says.

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Brown lost his restaurant job because of his detention, and he didn’t immediately begin a new job search because of the “emotional fallout” from his detention, the suit says. He landed a new job at a deli about two weeks later.

The case, Brown v. Ramsay, was filed on Brown’s behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

“Mr. Brown’s ordeal is not unique, the suit says. “In the last several years, ICE has placed immigration detainers on hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens, even though U.S. citizens are clearly not subject to removal or immigration detention. As a result, officials like the sheriff who consistently effectuate ICE detainer requests are constantly at risk of carrying out unconstitutional seizures.”

A spokesperson for the Monroe County Sheriff’s office told the Miami Herald the office does not comment on pending litigation.

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