(CN) - A Florida restaurant worker claims in a federal lawsuit that he was mistaken for an illegal alien from Jamaica and tossed in jail for three weeks by sheriff's deputies who blindly followed a bungled deportation order from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As recounted in court documents, Peter Sean Brown, a Florida Keys resident, told Monroe County Sheriff's officers -- over and over again -- that there had been a mixup, and that the deportation order against him was a blatant error.
"I am and have always been a U.S. citizen," he wrote to the sheriff's office, pleading to be released.
He offered to show the sheriff his birth certificate, and explained that the same sort of mistake had happened twenty years earlier when Immigration and Customs Enforcement's predecessor agency caused him to be detained, the complaint says.
Monroe County's own jail records listed his birthplace as Philadelphia, he says.
But instead of following common sense, Brown says, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office relied on a I-247A detention form sent by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, supposedly with "biometric confirmation" that Brown was an illegal alien.
In the lawsuit for violations of his constitutional rights, Brown says his ordeal began when he turned himself for a probation violation in April 2018 upon testing positive for marijuana.
After the sheriff's office sent Brown's fingerprints to a federal database, Immigration and Customs Enforcement faxed over the detention order, tagging Brown as a Jamaican illegal alien, the complaint says.
Brown says that prison guards mocked him when he insisted he was born in Philly. One guard "sang him the theme song to the 1990s TV show 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air,'" in which Will Smith raps about being "born and raised" in West Philadelphia.
According to the lawsuit, a high-ranking sheriff's office employee wrote to the jailed fifty-year-old local, "It is not up to us to determine the validity of an ICE hold. That is between you, your attorney and ICE."
Brown's court date for his probation violation was scheduled for April 26. At a hearing, a judge reinstated his probation and authorized his release, but the sheriff's office "rearrested" him and took him back to jail, the lawsuit says.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement ultimately transferred Brown to Krome Detention Center, an immigration detention facility in Miami. Brown says he and other detainees were given no food and no water during the transport, and that one sick detainee was not allowed to use the bathroom. The man soiled himself.
"The ICE agents left the bus because of the smell, but made Mr. Brown and the other detainees stay," the lawsuit says.
Three weeks deep into the mess, Brown's roommate secured his release by sending ICE a copy of Brown's birth certificate. Upon realizing the blunder, ICE released Brown "alone in Miami," far away from his home in the Florida Keys, the lawsuit says.
By then, Brown says, he had lost his job at a Keys restaurant where he worked for two years. He later secured a new job at a deli.
He wants damages for false imprisonment and violations of his Fourth Amendment.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office released a statement, calling the mishap an "unfortunate case of mistaken identity by ICE."
"My office was notified in writing by ICE that they had a Final Order of deportation signed by a Federal Judge for Mr. Brown," the statement reads. "ICE additionally stated in writing they had confirmed Mr. Brown’s identity via biometrics."
The sheriff's office claims it did not have the legal authority to release Brown.
"Local law enforcement throughout this country has been caught in the middle of a political argument regarding immigration," the sheriff's office said.
Accidental ICE-ordered detention of U.S. citizens is not uncommon. A 2013 Syracuse University study found that in a four-year period, ICE mistakenly detained more than 800 U.S. citizens.
One U.S. citizen, Davino Watson, was detained for more than 3 years, NPR reported.
ICE is not named as a defendant in Brown's lawsuit.
The Sheriff of Monroe County, Richard A. Ramsay, is the sole defendant, in his official capacity.
Ramsay was one of 17 Florida sheriffs who announced last January that they would be participating in a "Basic Ordering Agreement" (BOA) with ICE, under which they agreed to detain and transfer into federal custody inmates tagged for detention by ICE.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the "Basic Ordering Agreement" process was devised to solidify local law enforcement's authority to use an ICE order to continue detaining inmates who would otherwise be released. The agreement provides for ICE to pay local sheriffs for detaining suspected illegal aliens for up to 48 hours (presumably as reimbursement for the cost of detention).
According to Brown's lawsuit, ICE pays Monroe County $50 for each inmate detained under the agreement.
The National Sheriff's Association has stated that "if ICE does not pick up the alien within 48 hours, the BOA process provides no authority for the ... law enforcement agency to continue holding the alien."
The arrangement was executed in part as a reaction to federal court litigation challenging police authority to detain inmates for alleged immigration violations cited by ICE.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has criticized the arrangement.
"ICE and the Florida sheriffs cannot simply contract their way around the Constitution,” said SPLC deputy legal director Lisa Graybill. “The law is clear that local jails must have a legal basis to hold an individual, and absent that, they may face expensive lawsuits.”
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