PITTSBURGH – Allegheny County has agreed to stop honoring immigration detainers from federal authorities that request that a person be held in jail for up to 48 hours after he or she would otherwise be released.

The policy change is part of a settlement agreement reached in a lawsuit the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed in 2012 on behalf of Angelica Davila, a U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico and legally immigrated to this country at the age of 2 with her parents. After being stopped for a minor traffic violation in 2011, Davila was arrested and imprisoned in the Allegheny County Jail overnight based on the erroneous belief she was in the country illegally. The county also agreed to pay $25,000 in damages to Davila.

"The change of policy has meant a lot to me. It may be a small step, but it's a step forward," said Davila about the settlement. “I hope it prevents what happened to me from happening to someone else.”

Recent rulings in federal court have made it clear that counties can be held liable for honoring detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  ICE detainers are not arrest warrants.  Unlike criminal warrants, which are supported by a determination of probable cause, ICE routinely issues detainers simply because it wants more time to investigate a person’s immigration status.  And unlike warrants, ICE detainers are issued by ICE enforcement agents themselves without any authorization or oversight by a judge.

"We are grateful that Allegheny County will no longer hold people in jail on immigration detainers,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.  “ICE uses detainers to imprison people without due process and, in many cases, without any charges pending or probable cause of any violation.”

According to a March 2015 study by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, Pennsylvania counties are increasingly adopting policies not to honor ICE detainers after a Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2014 in the case of Ernesto Galarza, a U.S. citizen who was held erroneously for three days because of an ICE detainer. The Third Circuit concluded that ICE detainers were merely requests rather than a command from the federal government, and therefore local municipalities could be liable when individuals are wrongfully detained.  Lehigh County agreed to pay Galarza $95,000 in damages to settle his case.

Despite the fact that honoring ICE detainers could leave municipalities vulnerable to legal bills for ICE’s mistakes, a bill (Senate Bill 997) has recently been introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate that would force local municipalities to honor all immigration-related requests by the federal government, including detainer requests, or face financial sanctions, including the loss of state funding and liability for any injuries caused by individuals for whom detainers were issued.

“Senate Bill 997 would put counties in an impossible situation. County governments should not be forced to choose between their budgets and the constitutional rights of their residents,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The case is Davila v. Northern Regional Police Department, et al. Davila is represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU-PA and Tom Farrell and Emily McNally of the law firm Farrell & Reisinger.