A nonprofit civil rights organization filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Vermilion Parish, alleging the sheriff has refused to release federal immigration detainer forms, amid concerns that the rights of immigrants detained in Louisiana may have been violated since 2009.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit against Vermilion Parish Sheriff Michael A. Couvillion stems from public records requests submitted to sheriffs in 63 parishes, including Livingston, Ascension, West Baton Rouge, St. Helena, St. James and Assumption.
Of those, 15 sheriffs denied requests for documents related to individual immigration detainer forms, the lawsuit says.
“Law enforcement cannot just lock someone up — regardless of race, ethnicity or immigration status — and throw away the key,” Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the law center’s Louisiana office, said in a news release.
“We are prepared to do whatever it takes to view these records and ensure that proper safeguards are in place,” Schwartzmann said.
Craig Frosch, an attorney for the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, in August wrote that immigration detainer records fall outside the state’s Public Records Act.
Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack said the association discussed the lawsuit Wednesday and responded to the public records request, but he referred questions to Frosch.
Among the items Schwartzmann requested in July from the sheriffs were copies of any immigration detainers issued by the federal government since January 2009 and for each department’s policies and procedures for handling immigration detainers.
Schwartzmann also requested policies and procedures for informing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and/or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that a suspected noncitizen is in the custody of the local law enforcement entity.
ICE can ask state and local agencies to detain individuals following the resolution of traffic, municipal or state criminal charges if it suspects the person has committed a civil immigration violation, a news release says. However, federal regulations prohibit local agencies from holding the detainees beyond 48 hours after the initial charges have been resolved, the news release says.
In a July 27 response to the request for copies of any immigration detainers, the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office stated detainers were records of the arrest of a person, which are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Public Records Act, according to the lawsuit.
“Ultimately, the Sheriff did not provide a single document to Schwartzmann in response to her public records request,” the lawsuit says.
Couvillion did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday through a call to Col. Kirk Frith, warden of the Vermilion Parish Jail, who said he could not comment nor was he authorized to release information on the number of inmates held on federal immigration detainers.
Frosch wrote in an Aug. 7 letter on behalf of Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard that the records pertaining to immigration detainers fall outside of the Public Records Act, since they do not involve the initial report, the booking records, the issuance of a summons, or citation or records of the filing of a bill of information.
“In our view, the Public Records Act in this manner protects from disclosure the records pertaining to the arrest of a person, including the records of that person’s detention,” Frosch wrote in the letter.
On Wednesday, Lori Steele, a spokeswoman for Ard, said the Sheriff’s Office does not make a determination if someone is an immigrant or not, and therefore does not have the type of data the Southern Poverty Law Center requested.
St. Helena Parish Chief Deputy Chester Pritchett said Wednesday the office referred the public records request to the sheriffs association.
“We are not a federal holding facility; nor do we handle state inmates. So we don’t house them (immigrants). If we have a problem, we call ICE,” Pritchett said.
Waguespack, the sheriff in Assumption, said he had Frosch draft a response to the law center’s public records request, and Waguespack approved the response.
“Maybe they weren’t satisfied with the response we gave them,” he said.
Meredith Stewart, a staff attorney at the civil rights organization, says that in denying the public documents requests, the 15 sheriffs all cited the same exemptions under the state’s Public Records Act, “none of which we think are applicable to our request.”
“We just want to make sure that Louisiana law enforcement agencies are following the rules when it comes to federal immigration detainers,” Stewart said, adding that the requests are important so “that we do know how many people fall under this and how the sheriff is handling them.”
In follow-up letters to its initial request in July, the law center argued that immigration detainers are not arrest records and disclosure of the detainers does not violate constitutional privacy rights, the lawsuit says. The Public Records Act lists no express exemption for immigration detainers or for records relating to federal immigration enforcement, the lawsuit says.
Advocate reporters Heidi Kinchen, Brett McCormick and Terry Jones contributed to this report.