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Appeals court rules southern Minnesota sheriff cannot arrest and detain people on behalf of ICE

Updated: September 23, 2019 06:07 PM

A sheriff in southern Minnesota cannot detain people on behalf of the federal government for immigration violations until a lawsuit challenging the legality of such practices is resolved, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening had asked the court to overturn a previously granted, temporary restraining order that barred him from detaining undocumented immigrants for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, even after they posted bond or served their jail time. 

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The ruling is a legal victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing Nobles County for unlawfully detaining immigrants --- including more than a dozen immigrants in 2018.

"This decision will help ensure that Minnesota law enforcement officers do not go beyond their authority to act as federal immigration officials," Norman Pentelovitch, an attorney with Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie, who is working with the ACLU on the case, said in a statement.


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The ACLU was granted the restraining order earlier last fall while its lawsuit is pending.

Judge Diane Bratvold wrote that reversing the restraining order is unwarranted. She added that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the ACLU is likely to prevail in its lawsuit because "no Minnesota statute explicitly authorizes state and local officers to seize an individual for an immigration violation with or without warrant."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has filed a brief calling the ICE holds by the sheriff's office a "violation of Minnesota law."

An attorney for Wilkening previously stated that the county is merely following a long-time contract with ICE and that the lawsuit is an effort to "force counties to become sanctuary cities."

An email statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on behalf of the sheriff and Nobles County on Monday struck a different tone:

"Prior to this decision, no court had addressed whether Minnesota Statutes allowed a county to honor an ICE arrest warrant, similar to how it handles any other warrant. While this decision is not the result the County sought, it provides guidance on dealing with similar warrants going forward."

When asked whether the appeals court decision would impact how Nobles County defends itself against the still-pending class action lawsuit, attorney Stephanie Angolkar replied, "We're considering all options."

The ACLU is seeking a permanent injuction that would block Nobles County from arresting and detaining people on behalf of ICE. The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages for the four named members of the class action, alleging false imprisonment.

5 INVESTIGATES has followed the legal fight for nearly a year, including allegations of harassment after a plaintiff in the class action lawsuit was arrested on an invalid warrant last December, just months after the civil complaint was filed. 

"There's a real human cost to this too. It's not just the fact that you're in jail, it's that you can't go to your job. It's not just the fact that you're held in jail a few extra hours or even days or weeks, it's that you can't see your kids," Pentelovitch said. "A sheriff is an important part of a community, but the limits on a sheriff's power are set in place by Minnesota law."

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Joe Augustine

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