Miami-Dade County

Court tosses ruling against Miami-Dade over Trump administration’s immigration detentions

A state appeals court has dismissed a challenge to Miami-Dade’s policy of detaining suspected immigration offenders for the federal government, giving the county a legal win on one front after it suffered a legal setback in a similar case.

Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal overruled a Miami Circuit Court judge who had lambasted the county and Mayor Carlos Gimenez for changing Miami-Dade policy on immigration detentions days after President Donald Trump took office. The ruling said the circuit judge did not have jurisdiction in the case.

Early last year, Gimenez ordered county jails to begin detaining suspected immigration offenders when they were booked on unrelated local charges and then flagged by federal law enforcement for possible deportation. The move in January 2017 ended Miami-Dade’s time as an unofficial “sanctuary” community, and it received immediate praise by Trump on Twitter.

The appeals court ruled Judge Milton Hirsch overstepped his authority when he considered the constitutional challenge by a Haitian citizen whom Miami-Dade had turned over to federal agents for deportation. The appeals court ruled the challenge by James LaCroix, who had been jailed on charges related to a string of traffic offenses, should have been filed in federal court.

“The federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over a person in custody pursuant to valid federal authority,” the court decision issued Thursday read. A “state court cannot adjudicate the validity of a federal immigration detainer.”

James Lacroix mugshot
James Lacroix Miami-Dade Police

The decision didn’t weigh in on whether the detainers have legal problems, saying that argument needs to play out in federal court. Miami-Dade is already fighting a federal lawsuit related to its detainer policy, which the County Commission endorsed weeks after Gimenez issued his order. Miami-Dade had accepted the detainer requests until 2013, when a new county policy all but eliminated them as an option at local jails.

A U.S. judge earlier this month rejected a county motion to dismiss that federal case, setting up a legal showdown on the constitutionality of Miami-Dade’s two-year-old policy to honor all “detainers” issued by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Hirsch’s March 2017 ruling against Miami-Dade in the state lawsuit filed by LaCroix had no practical effect. LaCroix was already out of county custody and on his way to being deported to Haiti. The local judge did not try to order Miami-Dade to stop honoring the 48-hour detention requests, and county lawyers promptly appealed the ruling.

GDX10 Gimenez News rk
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose 2017 order resumed the county’s practice of accepting detention requests from federal immigration agents for people already booked in local jails on unrelated criminal charges. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

But coming weeks after Gimenez thrust Miami-Dade into the national spotlight for complying with Trump’s request for local help in his crackdown on immigration, the decision received significant attention. Hirsch wrote that Trump could not bend local governments to his will by threatening the loss of federal funds if detainer requests weren’t honored — a threat the new president made in one of his first executive orders.

“Coercion achieved by financial starvation is no less effective than coercion achieved at sword’s point,” Hirsch wrote.

In a separate opinion concurring with the three-judge panel, Third District judge Leslie Rothenberg slammed Hirsch for an aggressive decision that she said seemed more intent on scoring points against Trump and Gimenez than resolving a legal dispute.

Rothenberg noted Hirsch’s ruling against the county filled more sheets than did the transcript of the hearing that preceded it, and relied on “facts” that were “wholly outside the record with no evidence to support them ... and, in many cases, is factually incorrect.”

“In my opinion,” Rothenberg wrote, “the trial court impermissibly crossed the line between neutral arbiter of the facts to that of an advocate ...”