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On Texas Side of the Border, State Suing City over Handling of Suspected Human Smuggling Case

On Texas Side of the Border, State Suing City over Handling of Suspected Human Smuggling Case

It’s no secret that immigration issues have been at the forefront of American politics over the past few years. In fact, just last night President Trump gave a nationally televised speech asserting a need for a border wall. Immigration has become a hot button issue not only at the national level, but in many states as well.

In Texas, immigration issues have now even reached the local government level. In May of 2017, Governor Greg Abbott signed Texas Senate Bill 4 into law. The bill is commonly referred to as the “sanctuary bill,” since the bill is aimed at preventing so-called “sanctuary cities” in Texas. In essence, the bill requires local law enforcement to cooperate with federal agencies on matters of immigration.

What’s particularly interesting about this bill, is that local governmental department heads and elected officials who do not cooperate with federal immigration agencies can be subjected to fines, jail time, or even removed from office. The sanctuary bill has already been the subject of multiple lawsuits, including an appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals aimed at blocking its effects. Local officials typically don’t like it when the federal government tries to tell them how to do their jobs. To date however, the bill largely remains in effect.

Now it appears to be taken a step further. In late November of 2018, Governor Abbott filed suit against the San Antonio Police Department, Police Chief William McManus, and others in the city of San Antonio for allegedly violating Senate Bill 4. This was the first such lawsuit aimed at a city for violating the sanctuary bill.

The core of the AG’s criticism stems from several citizen complaints about the way San Antonio Police Department handled the scene of a suspected smuggling operation. According to the AG’s pleadings, SAPD responded to the scene of a tractor trailer containing 12 suspected undocumented immigrants. The AG’s complaint goes on to state that SAPD Chief William McManus refused to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement access to the suspects and later released them without performing a criminal background check or determining their immigration status.

According to the AG’s complaint, “[i]n a departure from customary practice, Chief McManus asserted jurisdiction over the investigation under the state smuggling statute, advised officers at the scene that SAPD would be handling the case locally, and stated that [federal] agents were not to be involved in the case.” The lawsuit further alleges that the city’s policies “prohibit and materially limit enforcement of immigration laws by prohibiting officers from referring individuals to ICE, requiring officers to contact immigration attorneys on behalf of suspected aliens, and by transferring suspected aliens to third-party organizations instead of federal authorities.”

It’s worth noting that the 12 suspected undocumented immigrants were not the subjects of a federal deportation order, rather they were merely suspected of being undocumented immigrants. State Senator Jose Mendez has said that the suit is “frivolous” and noted that SAPD officers do not hand people over without a deportation order. The suit seeks to impose a total of more than $11 million in civil penalties against the city.

Setting aside any opinions on immigration, some very interesting questions remain. Local governments do not like when the State or Federal government try to micromanage local enforcement. Many believe that officials and law enforcement at the local level are in a better position to determine what’s best for their communities. It’s clear that the bill requires local authorities to turn over a person subject to a federal deportation order; but what about when local law enforcement has to make a judgment call regarding someone who is not subject to a deportation or detention order? Should local officials be subjected to fines, jail time, or even removal from office for a judgment call? While there are some clear do’s and don’ts in SB 4, local officials are left to contend with some significant grey areas. In any event, the suit is interesting and should be monitored as it unfolds.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.

Brandon Morris is an experienced litigation attorney who has worked on a wide variety of cases, including personal injury claims, Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Consumer Protection Act (DTPA) violations, family law, criminal law, and credit collections. Brandon joined the Randle Law Office team early in 2018.

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