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Judge Rules DOJ Can’t Force Local Law Enforcement to Help ICE

Decision clears way for New Jersey to receive blocked funds. NJ had joined lawsuit saying that conditions sought by Department of Justice were unconstitutional

ICE arrest
Credit: ICE

A federal judge has cleared the way for New Jersey to receive $4 million in grants for policing, ruling the U.S. Department of Justice cannot force law enforcement officials to help immigration agents identify and detain undocumented immigrants.

The decision from U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos last Friday came just a day after state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal signed a new directive that prohibits police, prosecutors and sheriff’s officers from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts to detain and deport undocumented residents under most circumstances. They must only help ICE agents when presented with a warrant signed by a judge or when the immigrant is charged with a serious crime.

Grewal’s order runs directly counter to the conditions the DOJ sought to impose on state and local law enforcement to receive funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program. The DOJ announced in mid-2017 that in order to receive JAG funds, localities would have to allow federal agents to question immigrants in state and local correctional facilities, give agents advance notice of an immigrant’s scheduled release, and share with agents information related to the citizenship or status — legal or undocumented — of immigrants.

Newark and Middlesex County were among 31 localities that received letters last year from former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions informing them they would not receive JAG funding without agreeing to those conditions. Last July, New Jersey joined a lawsuit with New York, five other states and New York City to force the DOJ to release the money, saying it did not have the right to impose those conditions and that its actions were unconstitutional.

Judge Edgardo Ramos
Credit: Diocese of Bridgeport
Judge Edgardo Ramos

Ramos agreed, writing that the DOJ had imposed “unlawful conditions that violate the separation of powers” of the U.S. Constitution and that constituted “an irreparable ‘constitutional injury.’” He found that the states and New York City “demonstrated that complying with the unlawful conditions would undermine trust between immigrant communities and local government, which would discourage individuals from reporting crimes, cooperating with investigations, and obtaining medical services, thereby harming public safety and welfare.”

DOJ required to pay up

The ruling invalidates the grant conditions, requires the DOJ to reissue grant award letters without the conditions, and prevents the department from imposing those conditions in the future. That should pave the way for the state and municipalities to receive the more than $4 million for which the DOJ had told the state it was eligible for the 2017 fiscal year.

Jeff Sessions
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Sessions had imposed the conditions to get localities to help federal efforts to deport the undocumented. It was part of his attempt to carry out an executive order President Donald Trump signed soon after taking office that forbids so-called sanctuary jurisdictions from receiving most federal grants. But federal judges have thwarted this effort in every case they have decided to date.

Ramos’s decision is in line with, and cited, similar rulings handed down by judges in other parts of the country, as numerous locations — including Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco — also sued over the denial of JAG funding. Each decision applies only to those who brought the suits. In addition to New Jersey and New York, the Ramos ruling applies to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington.

The rights of local law enforcement

In a statement, New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, who was the lead attorney in the case, praised the decision as a major victory.

Barbara D. Underwood
Credit: NY OAG
New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood

“As we argued, local law enforcement has the right to decide how to meet their local public safety needs — and the Trump administration simply does not have the right to require state and local police to act as federal immigration agents,” Underwood said. “The Trump administration’s attempt to withhold these vital funds was nothing more than a political attack at the expense of our public safety.”

Grewal, in announcing New Jersey was joining the suit earlier this year, had called the JAG funding a “critical source” of money for public safety and law enforcement. The state has earmarked the funds in its recently enacted budget to combat issues related to gangs, organized crime, drugs, gun trafficking, and monitoring sex offenders, as well as to train law enforcement at all levels.

The 50-year old Byrne JAG program gives funds to states and localities according to a statutory formula. Congress designed the grants to provide a reliable source of law enforcement funds, while also giving states and cities the flexibility to decide how to use the funds. New Jersey has used its grants for public-safety efforts like multi-agency task forces targeting illegal gang activity, firearms trafficking, and narcotics dealing; for training prosecutors; for criminal justice information-sharing initiatives; and for body-worn cameras for law enforcement. In the 2016 fiscal year, New Jersey received almost $4.3 million in funds through the program and passed most of that — about $3.3 million — to local law enforcement agencies.

Although the ruling will allow for the state to receive JAG funding, it’s unclear how quickly the money will arrive.

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