Miami-Dade County

Haitian facing deportation after ‘habitual’ traffic offenses latest test of Trump immigration policy

James Lacroix was held by a Miami-Dade jail until federal immigration authorities could pick him up for deportation back to his home country of Haiti. He protested the action in the early weeks of the Trump administration in 2017, saying the detention by the county violated the U.S. constitution. A trial court sided with him, but a Florida appeals court did not.
James Lacroix was held by a Miami-Dade jail until federal immigration authorities could pick him up for deportation back to his home country of Haiti. He protested the action in the early weeks of the Trump administration in 2017, saying the detention by the county violated the U.S. constitution. A trial court sided with him, but a Florida appeals court did not. Miami-Dade Police

Haitian national James Lacroix pleaded guilty Tuesday to the minor crime of driving with a suspended license, ending his criminal case after more than seven weeks spent behind bars.

But Lacroix didn’t walk out of a Miami-Dade jail.

Instead, jailers kept him in custody under the county’s controversial decision to detain immigrants slated for deportation by federal authorities, even if their sentences have been finished. Lacroix has been ordered deported to Haiti, not for any violent crimes, but apparently because of a long history of driving without a valid license

In the latest ripple effect from the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, a Miami-Dade judge has set a Thursday hearing to explore the legal authority the county jail has for keeping Lacroix behind bars.

The judiciary is the new front line: A group of lawyers scramble to get their clients into the country, while preparing a legal challenge to Trump’s immigration ban.

It will be the first legal challenge to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s much-derided decision to begin cooperating with federal agents who have been empowered under President Donald Trump to dramatically step up deportations — actions that have generated protests across the nation, including in Miami-Dade, where Gimenez in January cited the threat of losing federal funding as a reason to cooperate with immigration agents.

“We don’t believe the federal government has the right to tell the state of Florida to spend money to keep someone jailed, to spend money to enforce their unconstitutional policies,” Lacroix’s lawyers, Philip Reizenstein and Kristen Kawass, said in a statement.

The Miami-Dade Corrections department declined to comment.

Lacroix remained at the Miami-Dade County Jail on Tuesday evening.

Federal agents are tasked with picking him up within 48 hours. A spokesman for the Miami office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said Lacroix was not in its custody as of Tuesday evening.

Even if Lacroix is turned over to the feds before Thursday’s hearing, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch said he will still consider the issue.

“Detention of this kind is ‘capable of repetition’ — indeed it occurs on a frequent, perhaps an increasingly frequent, basis,” Hirsch wrote in an order. “Evaluation of the lawfulness of such detention is not rendered moot by the transfer of a given detainee to the actual physical custody of ICE.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer talked about updates to President Donald Trump's immigration executive order during Wednesday's press briefing. According to Spicer, legal permanent residents will now be allowed to enter the United States w

In late January, Mayor Gimenez, faced with Trump’s threats over funding, ordered that jailers begin honoring immigration authorities’ requests to hold inmates wanted for immigration violations. The county mayor’s decision became a political flashpoint — lauded by Trump himself on Twitter, but reviled by immigration advocates, some of whom staged raucous protests against the mayor.

Unlike cities such as San Francisco, Miami-Dade had never formally declared itself a “sanctuary” city, a label criticized by Trump and many of the president’s supporters. Rather, Miami-Dade had since 2013 refused to indefinitely detain inmates who are in the country illegally and wanted by ICE — not based on principle, but because the federal government doesn’t fully reimburse the county for the expense.

Earlier this month, the majority of Miami-Dade County commissioners agreed to endorse the mayor’s move, despite hours of impassioned pleas from members of the public.

President Trump made aggressively deporting undocumented immigrants a central thrust of his campaign, and now, of his early administration.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security last month unveiled broad new policies aimed at finding, arresting and deporting illegal immigrants. The government plans to build new detention centers, speed up deportations and enlist local law enforcement to help, something Miami-Dade County opposes.

Under former President Barack Obama, people like Lacroix did not generally receive priority for deportation. According to his lawyers, the 45-year-old was living in the United States under a “temporary protected status,” which was afforded to Haitians after an earthquake in 2010 devastated the island nation.

At some point, Lacroix was ordered deported, although exactly when remains unknown.

State records show that Lacroix has been arrested more than 20 times for driving with a suspended license since 2008, netting several convictions. He has also been arrested three times for battery and aggravated assault, cases that were dropped each time and did not result in convictions.

In April 2015, after another driving arrest, the state designated Lacroix a “habitual traffic offender.”

One year later, Lacroix pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license, earning his first official felony conviction after six days in jail. Generally, all it takes is one felony conviction for deportation proceedings to begin for someone living in the United States under TPS.

Then on Jan. 7, he was arrested after a Miami-Dade cop pulled him over driving a truck with no tag. Lacroix was released from jail, but was rearrested and booked into jail on Jan. 28 after he was again pulled over in North Miami. On the next day, according to jail records, the feds filed a formal request with the jail indicating that a “designated senior DHS official” determined that Lacroix’s removal from the United States “would serve an important federal interest.”

The request was made two days after Mayor Gimenez’s order directing the jail to honor immigration detainer requests.

Lacroix remained in jail for weeks. On Tuesday, Lacroix pleaded guilty to the two cases of driving with a suspended license. The sentence: credit for the weeks he had spent in jail.

“As such, he is entitled to be immediately released from the custody of Miami-Dade County Corrections,” his defense lawyers wrote in asking that their client be released. “Any further detention beyond the date of the imposition of sentence constitutes as unlawful deprivation of Mr. Lacroix’s liberty.”

Judge Hirsch, who teaches law at the University of Miami and has authored a book on Florida criminal-trial procedure, is no stranger to challenging legal norms.

Last year, he declared Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional because jurors were not required to agree unanimously on execution, a decision echoed months later by the state’s high court.

In 2011, Hirsch was the only Miami-Dade judge who agreed with a federal judge that Florida’s drug possession law was “draconian” because prosecutors don’t have to prove that the accused actually knew of the illicit nature of the narcotics they were carrying. The Third DCA and the Florida Supreme Court eventually held that the drug statute was lawful.

In another high-profile case, Hirsch curtailed forensic evidence, not allowing a police fingerprint examiner to testify that he identified a conclusive “match” for a Miami man accused of two burglaries. An appeals court later overturned Hirsch.