Peter Sean Brown turned himself in for a probation violation in April, after testing positive for marijuana.
He figured he’d do a little time in jail and then go back to his life in the Keys.
But Brown, 50, a U.S. citizen who was born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, ended up on the fast track to deportation to Jamaica — a country he had visited for one day while on a cruise years ago.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Brown, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other agencies, is suing Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, saying his constitutional rights were violated when he was locked up — on request by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for weeks while law enforcement worked to send him to Jamaica, despite his repeated protests that he is a U.S. citizen.
He told every jail employee that he was a U.S. citizen born in Philadelphia, the lawsuit states, but the only response he got was mockery.
One guard talked to him in a Jamaican accent, calling him “mon,” while another sang to him the theme song from the 1990s television sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which mentions the main character being from West Philadelphia.
Three weeks later, as Brown sat before ICE agents in Miami, a friend finally sent ICE a copy of Brown’s birth certificate and he was released. But his attorneys say he remains traumatized by the experience and the fear of winding up in a Jamaican prison.
“I would never have expected in a million years that this would happen,” said Brown, in a video released by the ACLU along with a statement Monday. “With policies like this and people implementing them like that, it’s only going to continue. There has to be a stop to it at some point before it becomes all of us.”
Ramsay’s office wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit.
“The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office does not comment on pending litigation,” said spokesman Adam Linhardt when provided a copy of the complaint.
“Nobody should have to endure what he endured,” Brown’s lawsuit states. “He was kept in jail — away from his family, friends, and work — solely to facilitate his illegal deportation from the United States.”
Brown, who works in the restaurant industry, was jailed April 5. The next day, Ramsay’s office received a “detainer” from ICE, a form that is part of a federal program that relies on “Basic Ordering Agreements,” or BOAs.
The program pays counties $50 for each person they hold for ICE. Seventeen Florida sheriffs take part in the detention pilot program, the ACLU said. Linhardt wouldn’t confirm the $50 payment when asked. (Florida has 66 sheriffs, one in each county in the state, except Miami-Dade County, which has an appointed Miami-Dade police director, not an elected sheriff.)
“The sheriff’s policy and practice of automatically executing ICE’s arrest instructions ensured that the sheriff would violate people’s Fourth Amendment rights,” reads the complaint, filed Monday at U.S. District Court in Key West.
The road to deportation
On April 5, Brown turned himself in on a probation violation after he tested positive for marijuana, according to the ACLU. The sheriff’s office warrant says he was arrested at his home on Big Pine Key. He was booked into the Stock Island Detention Center and fingerprinted. Those fingerprints were sent to the FBI, which forwarded them to ICE, which the ACLU says is routine.
The next day, an ICE agent faxed a detainer form to the sheriff’s office asking Brown to be detained for up to 48 hours beyond the time he would be due for release.
At the time, Brown was on probation for a 2016 case involving resisting an officer with violence, in which he was sentenced to drug offender probation for two years and six months.
That case stems from an incident on Dec. 31, 2016, when Brown refused to leave a downtown Key West bar — even when police ordered him to leave. During his arrest, Brown “lunged” at one officer, according to the police report.
When he was arrested on April 5, Brown filed his first formal complaint about his detention three days later on April 8. He kept pressing officials for help, and called ICE but couldn’t get through to a person, the ACLU says.
In another complaint, Brown said once before, 20 years ago in New Jersey, ICE’s predecessor agency had mistakenly arrested him but released him after learning that he was a U.S. citizen. He explained that “as a 50 year old man,” he did not want to be “threatened with that humiliation again.”
He went to Monroe County Court on April 26 for a hearing on his probation violation. The judge gave him an additional 12 months probation and ordered him released.
He was put on a bus without food or water and once at Krome, the detainees sat for two hours, unable to even use a restroom. One man defecated on the bus and the smell forced the ICE agents to clear out. The detainees, however, remained stuck on the bus.
Unlike Ramsay’s office, ICE agents agreed to look at Brown’s birth certificate, the ACLU says. Brown’s friend emailed it to ICE, which “hastily” released Brown soon after.
Brown was left in Miami without any offer of transportation home. His roommate’s daughter eventually arrived to drive him home to the Keys.
Ramsay’s staff had access to his file, which the ACLU says clearly indicates he is an American citizen.
“The sheriff’s inmate file for Mr. Brown confirmed, in multiple places, that he was a U.S. citizen,” the suit reads. “The file lists his place of birth as “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” in capital letters. This file was available to jail staff throughout Mr. Brown’s detention.”
Amien Kacou, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, said, “The sheriff ignored our warnings and doubled down by signing on early to ICE’s latest sham — the BOA detainer scheme. With this lawsuit, we reaffirm that, regardless of ICE’s empty promises, Florida sheriffs will continue to be held accountable for doing the agency’s dirty work.”