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ACLU suit targets Sonoma County Sheriff''s Department

ACLU suit targets Sheriff''s Department Sonoma County agency accused of unlawful detention, profiling of illegal immigration suspects


Published: Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 4:30 a.m. Last Modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 4:47 a.m.

A lawsuit filed Friday in federal court accuses the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department of unlawful detentions and racial profiling of Latinos suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County say the Sheriff's Department collaborates with federal immigration officials to stop and search people who appear to be Latino, interrogate them about their immigration status and jail them without legal basis.

"I would say that's all untrue," Sheriff Bill Cogbill responded Friday, though he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

State law does not permit local sheriffs and police to enforce immigration law. But the lawsuit cites several recent cases in which deputies allegedly arrested people suspected of violating civil immigration law and placed them in the county jail without a warrant or any criminal basis for the arrest.

"When local police act as immigration agents, they infringe on the fundamental rights of residents and create a climate of suspicion and fear that undermines public trust and public safety," said Julia Harumi Mass, the ACLU staff attorney who filed the lawsuit naming the Sheriff's Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The Sheriff's Department acknowledges that it cooperates with ICE in a limited capacity, including detaining undocumented immigrants who have committed or are suspected of committing a crime, especially if it''''s violent or gang-related.

If there is a criminal warrant or immigration detainer on someone, the Sheriff''s Department also assists in arresting those people.

"We're not going on a witch hunt, racial profiling," Cogbill said. "For those committing crimes and involved in gangs and other violent crimes, using ICE is a way to take them out of the community. It's good public safety," he said.

The ACLU charges that once they are booked into the county jail, arrestees in Sonoma County are typically held for more than three days without being told of the charges against them or advised of their rights.

Cogbill said if someone is on an immigration "hold," federal authorities typically have 24 to 48 hours to pick up a suspect, or he or she is released.

The lawsuit cites several cases in which the Sheriff's Department is alleged to have unlawfully stopped or detained individuals based solely on their immigration status.

One case involved Christyan Sonato-Vega, 23, and his fiancee, who were stopped outside a bakery in Roseland. Two deputies approached him, saying the car had a crack in the windshield. They proceeded to question Sonato-Vega regarding his immigration status and whether his tattoos were gang-related, according to the lawsuit.

He was searched and allowed to leave, but about a week later was arrested at his job "on the sole basis of suspected immigration status," according to the ACLU. He was then held in Sonoma County Jail for several days without any criminal charges against him, without notice of his right to a hearing, legal representation or being considered for release on bond, according to the ACLU.

Cogbill on Friday said he was not familiar with Sonato-Vega's case.

But the sheriff and county officials met almost a year ago with ACLU and immigrants-rights attorneys to discuss their concerns with several cases. Cogbill said he investigated the cases they cited in which individuals allegedly had their rights violated.

"We spent a considerable amount of time looking into them and found they were within the law," Cogbill said.

Immigration officials could not be reached for comment late Friday after the lawsuit was filed.

In a statement, Rich Coshnear, attorney for the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, said, "Looking Latino or speaking Spanish is no reason to question, or arrest a person. We live in a country where the Constitution ensures that all persons should be given fair treatment under the law regardless of the color of their skin, or their accent."

Cogbill on Friday noted that in its most recent report, the Sonoma County grand jury essentially found that local police are not enforcing immigration law.

"Your local cop is truly not interested in the deportation of people who are not breaking local laws," the grand jury stated.

"A major exception to this policy applies to individuals involved in, or suspected of being involved in criminal activity," the report stated. "If such a person is an illegal immigrant, the Sheriff's Department will actively engage ICE to take federal custody of that person."

But the bottom line, jurors said, is that if an illegal immigrant obeys local and state laws, he or she can report crimes and obtain police assistance without fear of federal immigration officials.

"We get calls all the time from non-English(-speaking) people, who may, or may not be here illegally," Cogbill said Friday. "We go to their calls, deal with them as a victim or person asking for assistance. We never ask them about their immigration status."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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