The state’s highest court ruled Monday that under Massachusetts law, local law enforcement officials cannot hold a person who is wanted solely for immigration violations, a ruling that provides a legal basis for sanctuary cities to refuse to cooperate with federal officials.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruling is believed to be the first court decision in the country to forbid local authorities from enforcing federal immigration laws, unless the state Legislature passes a law that specifically allows it.
Republican lawmakers said Monday that they would work to do that, while advocates for immigrants said the ruling provided “much-needed clarity.”
Federal authorities have historically issued what are known as detainers — requests to their state and local counterparts to hold an immigrant who is wanted for deportation for up to 48 hours until federal agents can retrieve him or her. Some local law enforcement officials, including court officers, have historically complied. Aides for Governor Charlie Baker say that since June of 2016, State Police have held 27 people on detainers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Other agencies have refused to honor the requests.
But the SJC ruled that honoring a detainer would constitute an arrest, and there is no law that allows any Massachusetts law enforcement official to arrest someone for an immigration violation, which is a civil offense.
“Conspicuously absent from our common law is any authority . . . for police officers to arrest generally for civil matters, let alone authority to arrest specifically for civil immigration matters,” the court ruled.
Immigrant rights advocates said the ruling affirms that immigration is a federal matter.
The ruling “provides much-needed clarity for Massachusetts law enforcement at a time when they’re under a lot of pressure from the federal government to detain non-criminal immigrants and support deportation efforts,”said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
The court’s ruling came in the case of Streynuon Lunn, an immigrant from Cambodia. Last year, Lunn was arrested by Boston police on larceny charges and was being held while awaiting trial. After a victim did not appear in court, Lunn should have been freed, but a state court officer held him on an immigration detainer, and he was transferred to federal custody. Lunn appealedthe decision to hold him, saying he would have been freed but for the detainer.
Lunn has since been released without being deported, so Monday’s decision does not affect him directly. But the high court agreed to hear the case so that it could set guidance for similar situations in the future.
Emma Winger, an attorney for Lunn, said in a statement, “This decision provides important guidance at a time when federal immigration authorities have dramatically expanded their enforcement efforts, threatening to interfere with our administration of justice.”
For ICE agents, the decision is a blow to their efforts, an agency official said.
The ruling “weakens local law enforcement agencies’ ability to protect their communities,’’ said C.M. Cronen, director of the Boston office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The dedicated men and women of ICE will continue to do our sworn duty to enforce our immigration laws and protect the safety and security of the citizens of Massachusetts’ communities.”
ICE issues hundreds of detainers in Massachusetts each year, and those requests appear likely to increase under President Trump’s pledge to strengthen immigration enforcement.
Local municipalities including Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, and some states, including California and Connecticut, have established policies that forbid law enforcement officials from assisting their federal counterparts in enforcing immigration laws. But Monday’s decision was believed to be the first by a state’s high court to forbid officers from arresting or holding someone based on an immigration violation.
“This court decision sets an important precedent that we are a country that upholds the Constitution and the rule of law,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “At a time when the Trump administration is pushing aggressive and discriminatory enforcement policies, Massachusetts is leading nationwide efforts by limiting how state and local law enforcement assist with federal immigration enforcement.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office represented the Suffolk County jail where Lunn was held on the immigration detainer, praised the decision. She had asked the court to find that federal authorities cannot force local officials to hold someone on a detainer under state law.
“Today’s decision is a victory for the rule of law and smart immigration and criminal justice policies and a rejection of anti-immigrant policies that have stoked fear in communities across the country,” Healey said.
Lawyers for Healey’s office had argued in court filings that local law enforcement officials can still play a role in helping federal officials when an immigrant wanted for deportation poses a public safety risk — for instance by alerting authorities of a suspect’s whereabouts. But they argued that those decisions should be left to local agencies.
In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said that the Legislature could consider passing a law that would regulate how local law enforcement officials can assist federal authorities but left that consideration to lawmakers.
“State law must affirmatively grant authority to state and local officers to enforce federal immigration law before arrest can be made on that basis,” the court said.
A spokeswoman for Baker said his office is reviewing the decision.
Bristol Sheriff Tom Hodgson, who supports Trump’s immigration enforcement policies, said he is working with state legislators to introduce a bill that would permit law enforcement officers to hold someone on an active detainer issued by the US Department of Homeland Security.
Hodgson called the court ruling another hurdle for law enforcement to target people who are in the country illegally.
“It’s one more obstacle being thrown in the face of law enforcement who are trying to keep people safe,” he said.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Globe staff reporter John R. Ellement contributed to this report.