Carlos Ramos-Macario, a 28-year-old Smyrna man, was, in fact, convicted of driving without a license in June 2009. In Tennessee, that crime is a Class B misdemeanor and is punishable by as much as six months in jail. Ramos says he spent four months in Rutherford County Jail — a bit harsh, but under the maximum. On occasion, that’ll happen. The scofflaw is justly vanquished; the road’s valued chastity and honor remain intact and defended, respectively. And Rutherford County’s law-abiders can relinquish their property taxes knowing they are being put into a working system.
But no. Or at least maybe not.
The potential problem here is that Ramos’ harsh-but-legal four months in jail was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill five days, as per the order of the Smyrna judge who convicted him, who also gave him four days credit for time served while he awaited hearing.
That was on June 18, 2009, meaning his sentence was officially completed on Friday, June 19. At some point between his arrest and conviction, though, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allegedly put an immigration detainer order on Ramos, a native of Guatemala. That would have allowed the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office 48 extra hours (excluding weekends, so in this case, until June 23) to keep him in custody.
Ramos, however, wasn’t handed over to ICE custody and released on his own recognizance until Oct. 27, according to the federal class-action lawsuit he filed in the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee against the sheriff’s office last week, one of two that involve Hispanic plaintiffs detained far longer than was legally permitted.
These sorts of cases point to a larger problem, said Hedy Weinberg, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
“The constitutional protections of due process apply to everyone, citizens and non-citizens alike,” Weinberg said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing routinely that these protections are being denied to many in the immigrant community.”
Elliott Ozment, Ramos’ attorney, said he believes the treatment might be part of a wider pattern, which is why he is pursuing a class-action suit in this case.
“We fear that this may be a general practice, keeping foreign-born people in jail beyond the 48 hours authorized by an ICE detainer,” he said, adding that he couldn’t comment as to whether he’s heard about other similar cases in Rutherford County.
In the other suit Ozment filed against RCSO last week, plaintiff Luis Gonzalez alleges he was also improperly held without charges for more than a month.
According to the complaint, Gonzalez was making an appearance at General Sessions Court in Nashville in June 2009, in response to a citation, when a Rutherford County sheriff’s deputy approached him and told him that he had an arrest warrant for a Luis Gonzalez, albeit one several inches shorter, younger, and with a different middle name. The other Gonzalez was wanted for a probation violation on a DUI charge in Rutherford County. The deputy took Gonzalez into custody, causing him to miss his court appearance, which, according to Ozment, ultimately resulted in a warrant being issued in Davidson County.
“So he was taken up to the Rutherford County Jail, and he was taken in for booking,” Ozment said. “Very quickly into the booking process, it became apparent to the lady who was booking him [Mckayla Black, who is named in the suit] that the person that they had taken from General Sessions Court whose name was Luis [Alberto] Gonzalez, was not the Luis [Aleorto] Gonzalez they were looking for.”
Indeed, their mug shots look virtually nothing alike.
According to the lawsuit, Black then made a phone call to confer with someone else about the problem, then deliberately booked him as the wrong man, even changing his middle name on the booking sheet to reflect the desired fiction. He was held in Rutherford County until late July, when Judge Don Ash ordered that he be released.
Former Rutherford County Sheriff Truman Jones (replaced Sept. 1 by Robert Arnold), who, along with Chief Deputy and Administrator of Detention Bob Asbury, was named in both lawsuits, declined to comment on either when he was reached at his home. Roger Hudson with the Rutherford County Attorney’s office also declined to comment, saying he hadn’t seen the lawsuits yet.
Gonzalez’s case, unlike Ramos’, is not a class-action suit, and Ozment would not say whether he believes that Gonzalez was detained, in part, because he is Hispanic.
A larger problem
Still, speaking in broader terms not specifically related to these cases, Ozment said the issue of local law enforcement detaining the foreign-born — regardless of their immigration status, which in Ramos’ case Ozment would not reveal, saying it was “beside the point” — for improper stretches of time has become a widespread civil rights problem, particularly for Hispanics.
“I have seen a lot of racial profiling, a lot,” said Ozment, who has been practicing immigration law since 1998. “Much of the racial profiling I have seen over the years, I have, unfortunately, not filed legal actions in federal court or in state court when I suspected racial profiling because it was a civil rights matter, not an immigration matter.”
Ozment said he has seen instances of immigration-based racial profiling in every local law enforcement agency he’s encountered, including the Metro Nashville Police Department, Tennessee’s first and only local department to have instituted a 287(g) partnership with ICE.
“Do I allege that all the policemen in [the MNPD] racially profile? Of course not. In fact, I think that in the last couple of years they have improved and tried hard to issue citations instead of arresting for driving offenses,” he said.
That’s in keeping with a policy memorandum, issued last year by ICE, discouraging local agencies from detaining suspected illegal immigrants who only committed small traffic offenses, instead concentrating on serious criminals.
But that’s not to say every officer is acting within those parameters, he said.
“To those officers that want to be rogue cops, the 287(g) program serves as an incentive to those officers who want to enforce the immigration law even though they’re not supposed to. And they cloak it in profiling stops for such things as tinted windows, a taillight out, a license plate cover covering too much in their view, the plastic part of a license plate cover is too dark, a headlight is out. … No one in Green Hills is pulled over for those kinds of frivolous stops, but people on Murfreesboro Road are pulled over for those kinds of things all the time.”
Kristin Mumford, spokeswoman for Metro police, said there are no rogue cops on the streets.
“Well, we know that Mr. Ozment’s a very strong advocate for immigrants and immigrant rights,” she said. “And we are satisfied. This police department is very satisfied in regards to its performance with our citizens.”
Ozment was in favor of 287(g) when it was first proposed by Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, saying that the program, at least nominally, promised formal, proper training in immigration law and procedure. In fact, he was once a member of Hall’s advisory council on the program, but he was later dismissed and called the council a “rubber-stamp” for 287(g).
“The reason I have started filing these [civil rights actions] is I have seen abuse of the 287(g) program here in Nashville, and coming down the pike is another program called Secure Communities [an ICE records checking program] that I fear is going to lead to even more abuse by local law enforcement agencies.”
Karla Weikal, spokeswoman for Hall, said because of an agreement with the federal government, Davidson County could hold detainees for longer than 48 hours.
“What everyone needs to understand about the 287(g) program is that the sheriff’s office, we don’t make any of those decisions,” Weikal said. “We process someone if they are determined to be in the country illegally. However, it is up to the federal government to determine what happens to that individual.”
Even more problematic than programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities, say critics, are local sheriff’s informal policies, such as Rutherford County’s, in which jailers — who work for a county that is not part of any federal program and are not trained by federal immigration authorities — are expected to check with those authorities every time they arrest someone they suspect may be an illegal immigrant. More troubling, said the ACLU’s Weinberg, is the legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 1141, which requires nearly every county statewide adopt such a policy.
“The problem is that immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility and local anti-immigration ordinances, local law enforcement actions only hurt community relations, public safety and economic development in those communities,” she said.
In other words, said Ozment, these policies create an atmosphere of fear of the police in immigrant communities. Mumford said Metro has reached out to immigrant communities in an effort to combat fear and distrust. But the reality remains.
“Now when undocumented immigrants, especially, are victimized, they are afraid to report it to the authorities,” he said. “These people live in fear and they are afraid to report crimes of which they have been a victim. The reason they are afraid to report these crimes is that they do not perceive local law enforcement to be their friend.”