Montana House hears bill that would require officers to re-arrest immigration suspects

By: - January 27, 2021 6:48 pm

Montana Speaker of the House Wylie Galt talks with Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, in a floor session of the House. (Photo by Eric Seidle of the Daily Montanan.)

The Montana House Judiciary Committee heard its second bill in two days that would impact how Montana law enforcement officers would comply with federal immigration policies.

House Bill 223, introduced by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would require detention officers to re-arrest and hold any one who is already in custody and is the subject of a Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request.

Mercer said the bill was drafted in response to a Montana Supreme Court decision that ruled, “a detainer request is not an arrest warrant and does not compel the re-arrest of a person otherwise entitled to release.” The decision came after the Montana American Civil Liberties Union sued Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department for not allowing a burglary suspect to be released from jail, even if bond was posted, because the suspect was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request.

Mercer’s bill would not only allow for detention officers to arrest subjects of a detainer request, it would require it, which opponents of the bill said goes too far. Opponents also argued that it is a waste of resources for local police to act as federal immigration officers.

“This leaves no space for law enforcement, the folks that we hire to employ discretion and that know their communities best to to use that discretion in terms of where enforcement of these provisions and these requests is best,” Sam Forstag, with the Montana ACLU testified.

Instead, Forstag said the bill would open up cities and counties to Fourth Amendment lawsuits if they illegally hold someone in jail on a detainer request who ends up being a lawful citizen, which he said is not uncommon.

Mercer argued that the bill would provide statutory clarity to allow for robust immigration enforcement by giving local law enforcement officers and detention officers the authority to enforce federal detainer requests.

Kelly Lynch, Deputy Director and General Counsel for the Montana league of cities and towns, said it opposes the bill because she is worried that the database immigration and customs enforcement uses to issue detainers is not reliable and would expose cities and towns to Fourth Amendment liability.

Mercer said he plans on bringing another bill that would provide sovereign immunity to protect cities and towns from lawsuits like that.

After shutting down the testimony of two people who opposed HB200, which would prohibit sanctuary cities in Montana, Tuesday House Judiciary Chair Barry Usher interrupted the lone supporter who testified in support of HB223 Wednesday.

The interruption came as the proponent started to talk about crimes committed by immigrants in the country unlawfully, which Usher said was not relevant to the bill.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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