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Denton Record-Chronicle

Sanctuary cities law means nothing new for Denton city, county officers

Much ado about nothing. 

Texas' "sanctuary cities" law is facing  widespread public backlash after Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law on Sunday. But local law enforcement officials say it won't affect their current procedures when speaking with people who may be in the country illegally. 

The law, introduced in the Legislature as Senate Bill 4, allows officers to inquire about a person's immigration status and penalizes law enforcement heads for not cooperating with federal deportation authorities. Under the new law, cities and counties can't adopt policies preventing local officers from asking about a person's immigration status. 

The term "sanctuary city" is a politically charged phrase that has no legal definition. It's used to describe counties or municipalities that do not cooperate with federal deportation authorities, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But, like the phrase, much of the new law has no basis in reality. 

It does not give officers more authority when it comes to enforcing immigration law, which is a federal matter. In fact, local police officials say a person's immigration status rarely is pertinent on the scene of a crime or during a routine traffic stop. The law primarily ensures local jail officials will honor ICE detainers. 

An ICE detainer usually applies to unauthorized immigrants who have previously been convicted of a crime. It requests that a local police department notify the federal agency when they plan to release the suspect from jail. It also requests the local jail or agency hold the suspect for an additional 48 hours beyond their scheduled release date.

The Denton Record-Chronicle sat down with Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree and Denton Deputy Police Chief Lenn Carter to set the record straight about the implications of the new law, which goes into effect Sept. 1. 

Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree

Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree answers questions in his office at the Denton County Jail and Law Enforcement Center, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Denton, Texas.DRC
Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree answers questions in his office at the Denton County Jail and Law Enforcement Center, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Denton, Texas.

What is the sheriff office's policy — if there is one — about questioning a person's immigration status?

Well, there's not a policy. This law is brand-new and hasn't gone into effect yet. It's not going to change anything we do here. We've been cooperating with ICE on detainers and things of that nature, and we're going to continue to do that.

If you're a victim of a crime, if you're a witness to a crime, if you're someone we're talking to on the periphery of any crime, there's no reason for us to question your immigration status, and we're not going to do that. 

Now, if you've committed a crime, if you're being interviewed about a crime that you've committed, my understanding is that [the new law] gives the officer discretion to ask that question. And I'm going to leave that discretion to my officers. If it's something that's pertinent to the investigation or it's something they need to ask for whatever reason, then that's going to be up to them.

When would a deputy typically inquire about a person's immigration status? 

If you have an individual that you're interviewing that you believe may have committed a homicide or any felony offense, it may be necessary to ask that status. Simply because, first of all, you need to know. You need to know everything about that person. And there might be some instances where that person needs to be held if they have committed this crime and we have to notify ICE.

It's just hard for me to give specific examples. Sometimes, in investigations, it could be important.

Would that question come up during a traffic stop?

Probably not. And once again, discretion is up to the officer. 

I can't really give a whole lot of examples because every situation is different. But as far as going out and asking everyone their immigration status on traffic stops, we're not going to do that. If the person is arrested as a result of that traffic stop, that's going to be checked by ICE anyway in our jail. If it's a non-arrestable offense, that question will probably never come up.

How do you find out whether someone has an ICE detainer, and how are those detainers handled in the county jail?

If someone is booked in, there is an ICE agent assigned here, back in our jail, and it's their responsibility to check immigration status of anyone brought to the jail. It's not our responsibility. 

They then decide whether a detainer is put on that individual. And if they decide a detainer is necessary, they let us know and they file the necessary paperwork.  Then we know that every time that person is pulled up on our computer system, they are being held on an ICE detainer. And we honor those detainers.

Does this law interfere with any existing procedures in the department?

No. Really, this law isn't going to change the way we operate on a day-to-day basis. This law is for those who aren't complying with federal law, who aren't cooperating with ICE, who aren't doing, in my opinion, what they should be doing or what they're supposed to be doing. 

In my opinion, this is a law requiring you to follow a law. And that's basically what it is.

It's confusing to me because being in the country illegally is against the law and we cooperate with our federal partners on them enforcing those laws. We always have, and as long as I'm sheriff here, we always will. And so this new law doesn't change anything that we've been doing and that we'll continue to do. This is a law specific to the sheriff's office in Austin. That's where this all started. [Murphree is referring to Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who said in January that she would limit the amount of ICE detainers her office recognizes.]

Why does the sheriff's office not concern themselves with immigration status?

It's a federal offense to be in the country illegally, and we're not federal agents. We have no authority and this new law does not give us the authority to enforce immigration laws. And so we cooperate with ICE whenever they ask us to cooperate with whatever they're doing to enforce federal law. But neither me nor my folks have any immigration authority whatsoever.

Denton Deputy Police Chief Lenn Carter 

Denton Deputy Police Chief Lenn Carter answers questions in his office at the Denton Police Department, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Denton, Texas. DRC
Denton Deputy Police Chief Lenn Carter answers questions in his office at the Denton Police Department, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Denton, Texas. 

What is the Denton Police Department's policy — if there is one — about questioning a person's immigration status?

Our officers only question immigration status when someone is in custody in the jail. And the reason we do that is because there's actually a treaty that requires us to notify certain consulates of people from certain countries when they've been placed in custody. So that's where it comes into play for us.

 There's a series of questions in the jail, and one of them is, "Are you a foreign national?" or something like that. That is just to clue the judge in to let him know that that person is going to have to be giving his consulate warning. It's just a right that they have. 

For our purposes and practices, someone's citizenship has nothing to do with anything that we're going to be doing with them or any of our procedures.

When would a Denton police officer typically inquire about a person's immigration status?

I've tried to come up with a situation of where that would be relevant or how that may help with an investigation, and I really can't think of one. 

OK, let's say were dealing with an organized crime gang or something, and we've confirmed that they're engaged in organized criminal activity. Maybe we don't have the specific state case against them. Maybe we would reach out to the feds if their leaders are believed to be here undocumented. But that would be some sort of long-term investigation. In an officer's day-to-day [duties], I can't think of one where that would matter — where asking that question and getting an answer would benefit the officer at all.

This law is written as if it gives us some kind of authority. Let's say I ask you, and you tell me, "No, I'm not here legally." The law doesn't give me, as an officer, any more authority to do anything, so that question becomes useless to me. 

I'm at a loss as to what it serves other than a hypothetical city telling officers they can't ask that question. And I don't know where that city is.

Would that question come up during a traffic stop?

It doesn't come up. The things we need from you during your traffic stop are those things on your driver's license, and nowhere on a license is your citizenship status. And if you don't have your driver's license, then you're going to have the same problems a citizen would have. I mean, you're driving without a license.

How do you find out someone has an ICE detainer and how are they handled in the city jail?

Let's say you're arrested. We're going to run your name through the system. You could come back with a warrant or criminal history or something like that. The detainer is something like a warrant. It's going to come back as a "hit," and it would say, "Hey, place a hold on this person." 

That's how we would find out. It's part of confirming your identity in the booking process. 

Does this law interfere with any existing procedures in the department ?

None whatsoever. The law doesn't impact us at all.

Why do sheriff's deputies or Denton police not concern themselves with immigration status ?

Because immigration enforcement is for federal officers. It has nothing to do with local officers. Local officers wouldn't enforce tax evaders, that's a federal crime. Local police don't get involved with that.

There's been some incidents nationwide that, I guess, play well for politics — individual incidents where undocumented immigrants did pretty bad crimes and it makes good political rhetoric to say, "Hey, we're keeping you safe." But in reality, in our day-to-day, we just treat people the same. And if they happen to have an ICE detainer, we handle that just like a warrant. But citizenship status plays no role in any investigation we would do. Local police just aren't equipped to do that. 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.

Featured photo: A photo illustration shows Denton Deputy Police Chief, Lenn Carter, left, and Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree discussing the sanctuary cities law that will go into effect in Texas on Sept. 1.
DRC/Jeff Woo