Miami-Dade County

Sanctuary workaround: Miami-Dade may expand list of minor crimes that get tickets

Miami-Dade police could issue tickets for more minor offenses under a proposed rewrite of county law that’s partially aimed at helping immigration offenders avoid deportation orders.

“People should not be deported just because they come to the attention of the system,” County Commissioner Sally Heyman said in February when introducing her proposal, which won preliminary approval July 10. It would expand the list of minor crimes that can be treated as civil violations, offenses that result in a ticket rather than a trip to jail.

It’s during the booking process that county jails discover someone is subject to a detention request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Miami-Dade changed its policy early in the Trump administration to begin honoring the requests and hold suspected immigration offenders for federal agents..

“If they’re not arrested,” Heyman said, “it never comes to anyone’s attention.”

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Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman is sponsoring legislation to expand the county’s civil-citation program, which lets police officers issue tickets for minor offenses. Miami Herald file

A final commission vote on the change is expected in September or October. The proposed changes probably wouldn’t have much effect for immigration offenders, since the expanded list doesn’t overlap with charges that have landed ICE targets in Miami-Dade jails. But it’s the first step by Miami-Dade to dilute a January 2017 decision to have local jails temporarily hold suspected immigration offenders to give federal agents more time to apprehend them.

The 2017 switch earned instant praise from the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump, and accusations of betrayal from Miami’s immigration advocates. With Florida this year enacting a law banning “sanctuary cities,” Miami-Dade’s proposed ordinance offers a potential workaround to keep minor offenders from getting caught by immigration officers.

“Anything that moves the needle in the right direction is more than welcome,” said lawyer Cheryl Little, director of Americans for Immigrants Justice in Miami and a lead advocate against Miami-Dade’s 2017 decision to accept ICE detention requests.

In late 2013, Miami-Dade commissioners adopted a resolution, also sponsored by Heyman, that effectively ended the county’s acceptance of immigration detainers. The new policy barred county jails from accepting detainers for minor offenses and authorized them for serious offenders only if ICE agreed to pay local detention costs. Because the Obama administration refused to cover those costs, Miami-Dade stopped holding suspected immigration offenders and earned the “sanctuary” label from Justice in 2016.

Miami-Dade objected to the “sanctuary” label, arguing its officers continued to cooperate with immigration agents but simply declined to extend detention times beyond when someone would otherwise be released on the local charges that brought them to jail. Heyman, a Democrat, said she was working with Hillary Clinton’s policy team for a potential status change after the 2016 election.

One of Trump’s first executive orders told agencies to deny federal funding to “sanctuary” jurisdictions. Gimenez, a Republican, made the policy change the next day, and the County Commission endorsed it a month later.

On Wednesday, Gimenez’s police director endorsed Heyman’s proposed expansion of the county’s civil-citation program.

“It gives our officers additional tools to do our jobs,” Director Juan Perez said at the July 10 meeting. “So we don’t have to arrest everybody we come across for minor offenses. ... There are officers on the street that are asking us to expand this program.”

Heyman and others have cited broader reasons for expanding the civil-citation program, beyond the impact on immigration offenders.

Booking someone for jail time runs up detention costs at Corrections, a top consumer of property-tax revenue in Miami-Dade’s $8.9 billion budget. In 2015, Miami-Dade added marijuana possession to the list of civil citations to combat racial disparities in drug arrests.

Heyman’s proposal adds 31 misdemeanors to the list of criminal offenses eligible for a civil citation from a police officer — an alternative to an arrest followed by a trip to jail. Even if someone is eligible for quick release, the visit to Miami-Dade’s Corrections Department requires a search of all warrants and holds for anyone booked on charges.

That computer search flags detention requests issued by ICE for suspected immigration offenders. Those “detainer” requests ask local authorities to hold someone for up to 48 hours, plus weekends and holidays that fall on either end of that time window.

While Miami-Dade stopped accepting the detainers in late 2013, the 2017 change sparked a steady pace of apprehensions by ICE at local jails. Through 2018, Miami-Dade jails had turned over 1,.479 people to immigration authorities, according to the Department of Corrections.

The proposed extension of civil citations mostly involves obscure offenses that haven’t been the source of arrests that lead to deportations, according to a Corrections tally of inmates who were the subjects of detainers.

Among the offenses that would be eligible for citations are operating a motorboat in a restricted zone, engaging in private business on county property, and renting space to a bingo operator without a permit. Also on the list: disorderly conduct., sale of drug-related paraphernalia, and loitering.

None of the added offenses shows up as the lone charges that put someone in a Miami-Dade jail and then in the hands of ICE through a detainer request, according to the Corrections tally that runs through the end of 2018.

Little, the immigration advocate, said driving offenses are often what thrust undocumented immigrants into the local criminal-justice system because they can’t obtain licenses. That crime did not make it onto the proposed expansion of civil violations.

“Driving without a license would have been huge,” Little said.