Alameda Sheriff Accused of Violating State Sanctuary Law 

Sheriff's deputies allowed ICE agents into a locked area in Santa Rita Jail to arrest an immigrant woman who had committed no crime.

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While ICE likely knew about Ortega's arrest and imprisonment at Santa Rita Jail on drug charges — thanks to the fact that ICE has access to an FBI database of jail bookings that receives data from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office — it's unclear how ICE knew Ortega was going to be released that exact day and time.

In October, Sheriff Ahern told the county board of supervisors that his deputies never proactively call ICE to let them know when a person is going to be released from jail. And Ahern adamantly said that his jails do not honor ICE holds — requests from ICE that the sheriff keep someone confined for an extra amount of time so that ICE agents can get to the jail and arrest them before they're released.

But Ahern did say that ICE agents can call the jail to find out the release date and time for a specific inmate, just like any member of the public. They can also check the county jail's Inmate Locator website to learn which day an inmate will be released.

Immigrants' rights advocates have characterized the sheriff's increased transparency around publicly sharing inmates' release dates as a "loophole" used by sheriffs to help ICE arrest people before they're out of county jail. But the sheriff said that this new transparency, which includes posting people's release dates on the Inmate Locator — a practice that began earlier this year — was done to help families learn when their loved one is getting out, and was in response to requests from reentry advocates.

But the Alameda County Public Defender's office thinks that it wasn't just ICE exploiting the loophole that led to Ortega's arrest. Instead, Raha Jorjani, immigration defense attorney for the public defender, wrote in a court briefing that sheriff's deputies must have proactively communicated with ICE to let them know when they were releasing Ortega.

"This was enabled by direct cooperation of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in violation of California state law," alleged Jorjani.

Alameda County Sheriff's Sergeant Ray Kelly wrote in an email to the Express that he doesn't want to speculate about Ortega's case without a thorough review. But Kelly wrote that the sheriff's office "take[s] any ICE request very seriously and has a very fair and balanced policy that favors arrestees' freedom when there is a grey area."

The jails have SB 54-compliance units that work to ensure that ICE is only provided information about people who have been convicted of the specific violent and serious crimes listed in the California Values Act. "I'm unaware of any pattern or trend that would show we don't comply with SB 54," Kelly wrote. "I have found our policy of following of the law to be on target, and a best practice for other counties to follow."

After ICE agents arrested Ortega in Santa Rita Jail, they took her to ICE's San Francisco facility, then a jail in Martinez, and finally locked her up at the West Contra Costa County Detention Facility in Richmond.

Ortega said she was shocked and afraid to be held in the Contra Costa County jail. She said she also met other detainees who had been arrested by ICE inside Santa Rita Jail.

On March 2, after almost a month in ICE's custody, Ortega had a bond hearing in San Francisco before immigration judge Joseph Park. Park ordered that Ortega be denied bond because she was a "danger" to the community. "She has been recently arrested for possession for sale of a controlled substance," Park wrote in his order, citing allegations, not any record of conviction.

The immigration judge's order flew in the face of the superior court judge's order that Ortega wasn't a danger to anyone and that she should be released. Furthermore, because Ortega was in an ICE jail, she was unable to appear in superior court to respond to the allegations she was in possession of drugs.

Jorjani, Ortega's public defender, quickly filed an appeal, and then filed a lawsuit known as a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court. "The Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus is an extraordinary measure," Jorjani explained in an email to the Express. "Ms. Ortega happened to have been arrested in a county where the public defender’s office not only had a thriving and groundbreaking removal defense practice, but had recently begun another groundbreaking practice of filing habeas petitions to challenge the constitutionality of detention in certain cases.."

Jorjani argued in the lawsuit that Ortega's rights were being violated because the immigration judge based his decision on mere allegations, not a conviction, and had failed to make a ruling of probable cause.

"[Ortega] is currently being treated as though she has been found guilty of all criminal charges pending against her, despite the absence of any such verdict or finding," wrote Jorjani in the lawsuit. "Essentially, she has been found guilty in immigration court of all of the conduct alleged, none of which has been substantiated, without any of the rights or procedural safeguards afforded to individuals accused of crimes."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley agreed and ordered ICE to release Ortega on May 15.

As to whether the sheriff violated SB 54 in Ortega's case, this hasn't yet been determined. Ortega's other attorney Hussain filed a claim against Alameda County over the incident in August.

According to County Counsel Donna Ziegler, Ortega's claim is still under investigation. And since Ortega was arrested, one other individual has also filed a claim alleging an SB 54 violation by the sheriff's office.

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