As Metro awaits a court decision  on whether Sheriff Daron Hall’s implementation of the federal 287(g) deportation program is lawful, the city’s legal department is proactively seeking to clarify other sheriff’s office powers by amending the Metro charter.
Saul Solomon, director of the Metro Department of Law, told The City Paper Friday he plans to file legislation for a charter amendment that would more clearly spell out three authorities of the sheriff’s office: the booking of people after they’re arrested, providing security at court and taking DNA samples of inmates.
“The sheriff has undertaken over the years a number of initiatives that arguably can be viewed under the purview of the police rather than the sheriff,” Solomon said, adding that the legal department still believes the sheriff has the “current authority” to carry out the three items outlined in the amendment.
“Given that reasonable people can differ on this,” he added, “we thought it would be a good opportunity to go ahead and make it clear in the charter.”
Solomon, appointed by Mayor Karl Dean as legal director in January, is eyeing the proposal go before Davidson County voters on Election Day, Nov. 6. The charter amendment, which needs Metro Police Department consent, would require 27 votes in the Metro Council to make it on the November ballot.
It marks the first-ever Dean administration-initiated push for a public referendum to amend Metro’s founding document.
The proposal comes as the Tennessee Supreme Court is to decide whether the 1963-era Metro charter vests the sheriff with the authority to enforce 287(g) — a federal immigration program Hall has used to allow sheriff’s employees to screen the immigration status of inmates to begin the process of potential deportation.
Hall said the proposed charter amendment originated from an effort to clear up “non-287(g)” concerns. Over the years, Metro has transferred various responsibilities and duties from the police department to the sheriff’s office, he said.
“I suspect the lawyers and the legal department want to make sure that whatever this sensation is about 287(g), when that case is resolved, that we get this other stuff cleaned up as well,” Hall said.
U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp in January asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in on the powers of the sheriff’s office after Nashville immigration attorney Elliot Ozment in 2010 sued in federal court over the sheriff’s agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to implement 287(g).
Ozment declined to comment on Metro’s referendum push until an ordinance is formally filed with the council and made public.
“We’re going to be sued and challenged by Elliot Ozment continuously,” Hall said. “That’s just the way it is. So why not get these types of issues resolved?”
State Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments on the 287(g) question in June. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued Hall’s authority is confined solely to operating the jail. But Metro attorneys have contended those powers include interviewing detainees to determine their immigration status.
Hall and Solomon affirmed confidence that the sheriff’s office has the authority to enforce 287(g) under the existing charter. “But again, reasonable people could probably differ on that,” Solomon said.
“We decided to take a look at the other things that he did,” Solomon said. “And we just thought it would be best to get in front of the people and let them decide rather than some court decide what the sheriff should do.”
The sheriff’s office’s 287(g) agreement with the federal ICE bureau heads before the Metro Council in October for renewal.
In 2009, the council authorized the sheriff’s three-year 287(g) agreement by a 34-3 vote. But over the past three years, criticism of the deportation program has mounted as Hall’s authority to implement it is challenged.