Did Madera County supervisors break the law by secretly ordering jail cooperation with ICE?

Sierra Star

The Madera County Board of Supervisors may have secretly ordered the head of its local jail to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in violation of state open government laws, a lawsuit filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union says.

The allegations are outlined in an 11-page claim against the board filed in Madera County Superior Court Monday.

The ACLU complaint says that on March 7, the Board of Supervisors met in a closed session for a personnel evaluation of Madera County Chief of Corrections Manuel Perez. During the meeting, it alleges the board ordered Perez to begin honoring requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to inform the federal agency when the jail was holding and releasing undocumented immigrants with serious felony charges so they could be detained by immigration authorities.

Until the March meeting, the Madera jail - like many others in California - had not proactively informed ICE about foreign nationals in its facility, making it a so-called sanctuary county, the suit said.

Madera County Assistant Chief of Corrections Michael Gonzalez confirmed the jail currently notifies federal immigration authorities when it is holding and releasing a “person of interest,” a result of jail policies that changed this year. The jail does not hold people beyond their release date for immigration, Gonzalez said.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges Madera County District Attorney David Linn held Perez accountable for the jail not proactively providing ICE with information and pushed the board to take action after Linn held an “ICE Summit” with immigration officials in March that Perez failed to attend.

Madera is one of three counties in California that has a separate chief who is a county employee to head its jail. Most county jails fall under the jurisdication of the elected sheriff.

Perez did not return an email request for comment and is currently on vacation, Gonzalez said. Madera County Counsel Regina Garza said in a statement the “County is disappointed the case was filed, but will appropriately defend itself.” Garza declined further comment, citing pending litigation. None of Madera’s five supervisors returned calls or emails for comment.

In a March 1 letter to the Board of Supervisors after that summit, Linn requested a closed-session meeting with the entire board and said the county risked losing $46 million in federal funding by being a sanctuary county and was releasing “dangerous felons back into our communities.”

Linn threatened litigation or criminal charges against Perez and Acting Madera County Counsel Scott Gross for their failure to help ICE, according to a letter Linn sent to the board and included in the lawsuit.

“I have instructed staff to research potential charges of malfeasance that may be filed against both, along with Grand Jury action for indictment,” Linn wrote.

The Board honored Linn’s request and held a closed-session meeting with no public input on March 7, listing the discussion as a personnel review of Perez. Personnel reviews are allowed to be held in private under the Brown Act.

On March 30, Linn sent out a press release that said “the Board of Supervisors unanimously instructed Chief Perez … to fully comply with all ICE requests, and also directed the Madera County Counsel’s Office to expedite their action, to ensure that Madera County is in full compliance with the federal government.”

The press release suggested that the county had entered into a formal agreement with ICE that may have traded the jail cooperation for an assurance that ICE wouldn’t do local enforcement outside of those pickups.

“As of March 23, 2017, all documentation, agreements, and operating procedures had been signed, and the Assistant Field Office Director from ICE informed D.A. Linn that Madera was in full compliance,” the release said.

The press release continued that Linn “believed this cooperation with Homeland Security ensures that violent criminals who have been sentenced and released by the Madera County Jail to be returned to their country of origin will prevent further involvement of the members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Madera County for such things as neighborhood sweeps, effecting local residential areas, schools, and agricultural operations.”

The ACLU contends the board’s order to Perez was public business that needed to be noticed on an agenda and discussed in public. It requested the board hold an open discussion of the policy change, but the board declined to do so, claiming that any action it took with Perez was a personnel matter and not an “action” under the Brown Act laws.

“Without conceding any direction was given in closed session, the direction you allege was given is not ‘action’ for the purposes of the Brown Act,” Gross wrote in a letter to the ACLU on June 30.

ACLU staff attorney Angelica Salceda said the private meeting with Perez went “beyond just evaluating the performance of a chief. Essentially they smuggled in another item in that closed session including a discussion of how Madera County jail responds to ICE requests.

Salceda said “that policy shift was significant and should have had public input.”

ICE spokesman James Schwab said that if Madera County did have the relationship with ICE that Linn suggested, “it prevents us from having to go out into the county looking for people.”

On Monday, Linn called the ACLU suit “much ado about nothing.”

“They’re not suing the county for money, they said, ‘Just don’t do it again,’” Linn said. “I like the ACLU, but I can’t believe they’d waste their donors’ dollars on something like this. If the county counsel wants to sue for malicious prosecution, I would be glad to help.”

Linn told The Bee all he wanted was for the county Department of Corrections to “answer the phone when ICE calls” and to allow ICE to pick up a suspect upon their release, not in the main lobby but in a discrete location “which is beneficial for him and his family and everybody else.” Linn added that he didn’t want Madera County to lose federal funding by not complying.

Unlike other neighboring counties, which allow ICE to interview suspects in jail and gather information there, “we’re not asking for anything like that, all we want is for the jailer to answer the phone, which they haven’t done for a number of years,” Linn said.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa