Must Massachusetts set aside its own time-honored protections for individual rights just because the federal government asks it to? That’s the question Boston Municipal Court Judge Michael Coyne confronted Feb. 6, when he had to decide whether to free a Cambodian immigrant named Sreynuon Lunn. State prosecutors had just dropped larceny charges against Lunn, and there were no other warrants for his arrest. Lunn’s lawyer wanted him released.
But instead of freeing Lunn, the state kept him in the courthouse jail because federal immigration officials had filed a detainer for him. Immigration detainers, issued by the Department of Homeland Security, are not criminal warrants. No impartial judge signs them (not surprisingly, they sometimes contain mistakes). Yet police and courts in the Commonwealth routinely do what Coyne did in February: set aside the normally high bar for taking away an individual’s freedom on no more than a federal immigration officer’s request.
Lunn’s case is now at the center of a court challenge that could inject Massachusetts right into the center of the bitter national debate on illegal immigration. His lawyers have asked the Supreme Judicial Court to rule that Lunn was arrested illegally, and that complying with immigration detainers amounts to a violation of the ban on unjust seizures that John Adams wrote into the state constitution in 1780. Depending on what the court decides, and how broadly its ruling applies, the court could stop every law enforcement agency in the Commonwealth from honoring detainers, a key tool of federal immigration authorities.
No other state court is believed to have issued such a ruling, and it would probably be explosive. Critics will doubtlessly call the Commonwealth a “sanctuary state”; President Trump’s cranky tweets practically write themselves.
Well, so be it. Massachusetts courts shouldn’t deprive anyone of their freedom without “formalities prescribed by the laws,” as Adams put it, and an SJC ruling that affirms that basic legal tenet would provide welcome clarity to guide Massachusetts municipalities grappling with their ambiguous role in immigration enforcement.
The extent to which officials should comply with immigration detainers is one of the questions at the heart of the debate over so-called sanctuary cities. Some cities, like Boston and Somerville, have chosen not to honor detainers, outraging anti-immigrant hardliners like Trump. But other state entities — like the court officers at the heart of the Lunn case — do hold immigrants on detainers.
Yet a lawyer representing the federal government was unable to point to any provision of state law that allows Massachusetts officials to hold immigrants without a judicial warrant. Associate Justice Geraldine Hines wondered, “Isn’t that an arrest, so that constitutional guarantees apply? How is it that we can just hold a person without a magistrate, without probable cause, without any of that?” For all the thunderous denunciations of sanctuary cities, it may be the non-sanctuary cities that are operating in a legal gray area. The federal government’s lawyer could only cite the principle of comity, or cordiality between the two branches of government, to defend the practice.
However the court rules, the case should have no bearing on public safety. “Detainers by their nature only apply to people who would otherwise be released, or have been found eligible for bail or had their criminal charges dismissed,” said Emma Winger, Lunn’s lawyer. Immigrants suspected of crimes can and should still be prosecuted, just like anyone else. And whether local police should offer other types of cooperation to federal authorities — alerting ICE to an immigrant’s whereabouts, for instance — will continue to generate debate.
But the criminal case that brought Lunn into Coyne’s courtroom in the first place was dropped, and that should count for something. The judge erred by not freeing him. The SJC has an opportunity to restate what should be an uncontroversial guarantee: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not jail anyone who hasn’t been lawfully arrested or convicted of a crime.
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