Florida Keys' Sheriff Sent U.S. Citizen to Miami to Be Deported, ACLU Says in Lawsuit

Florida Keys' Sheriff Sent U.S. Citizen to Miami to Be Deported, ACLU Says in Lawsuit

Peter Sean Brown was born in Philadelphia and is a U.S. citizen.

But that fact apparently didn't matter to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, whose deputies illegally held Brown in a jail overnight because they thought he should be deported to Jamaica, a country where he's never lived, according to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed today in Miami federal court. He was also forced to spend time in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at the Krome Service Processing Center.

"I am and have always been a citizen of the United States," Brown says in a video the ACLU released online today as part of the second major ACLU lawsuit accusing a South Florida police department of trying to deport an American citizen.

The first one began soon after Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez in January 2017 agreed to begin  imprisoning ICE detainees to please President Trump. Garland Creedle, an American who was born in Honduras, said in a lawsuit that he was wrongfully held overnight in Miami at ICE's request. A judge recently ruled that Miami-Dade County can be held liable for the mistake.

In an unrelated case, immigrants who were detained in Miami-Dade jails after posting bail, have also sued the mayor. Immigrant-rights activists estimate that honoring ICE detainers cost Miami-Dade County an additional $12.5 million in 2017 alone.

Brown, age 50, was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in nearby New Jersey before moving to the Florida Keys roughly a decade ago, the lawsuit says. In what the ACLU calls a "stark example of what can go wrong when local law enforcement does ICE’s bidding," Brown arrived at the Monroe Sheriff's Office voluntarily in April 2018 after violating probation for what he calls a "low-level, marijuana-related" offense. Brown expected to do a short stint in jail.

He says the sheriff's office sent his fingerprints to the FBI as part of a routine jail-booking procedure. Then, instead of releasing him, the cops told him that the FBI had sent his fingerprints to ICE and that the deportation agency had placed a "detainer request" on him. (This meant ICE had asked the Monroe Sheriff's Office to hold Brown for 48 hours so the deportation force could pick him up.) ICE said he was supposed to be sent to Jamaica — a country he'd visited only for one day on a cruise. Otherwise, he says he's never been to the island, let alone been a Jamaican citizen. (ICE's predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, also mistakenly tried to deport him 20 years ago.)

Brown says he tried to persuade the Keys sheriff that he was, in fact, an American. He says he promised to show the cops his birth certificate and kept repeating he was born in Philadelphia. He also says that, after a friend learned he was in jail, the friend looked up his name in the sheriff's inmate database. The ICE detainer contained some obviously incorrect information that the ACLU says should have made the officers think twice about detaining Brown. Though Brown is only five-foot-seven, ICE claimed he was seven feet tall, for example. ICE also listed an incorrect birthdate.

In the meantime, the sheriff's office had its own, correct case file on Brown, which stated he was an American. The ACLU says the Keys' deputies ignored their own paperwork in deference to ICE's request.

Brown says guards at the jail also "uniformly" refused to help him.

"In response, Mr. Brown told multiple jail officers that he had a birth certificate at home that proved his citizenship," the suit says. "He offered to ask his roommate to send it to the Sheriff’s Office. The officers told him not to bother because it would not change anything. They said they would hold him on the ICE detainer no matter what, regardless of his birth certificate." Brown says that he also tried to call ICE directly but that ICE's phone-call waiting times are "notoriously long" and "staffed by contractors with no authority to cancel detainers."

While he languished in jail, he filed multiple complaints, but he says the Monroe Sheriff's Office refused to acknowledge any evidence that he was, in fact, an American. Instead, some of the cops allegedly ridiculed him by singing the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ("In west Philadelphia born and raised/
On the playground was where I spent most of my days

This past April 26, a judge reinstated Brown's probation and ordered him released. But he remained locked up until the following day, when ICE officers took him to the Krome Service Processing Center in Southwest Miami-Dade. He says he signed every single one of his documents with the words "U.S. citizen" after his name. Before he was placed on a bus to go to Krome, he says, another Monroe officer mocked him and quoted reggae musician Bob Marley by saying, "Whatever, mon, everything's gonna be all right," in a faux-Jamaican accent.

The trouble worsened once ICE arrived. He was placed on a bus and driven to Krome, where the bus sat idling in the parking lot for two hours after arrival. Another inmate grew ill and defecated on the bus. Brown says the ICE agents left because the smell was horrid, but the detainees were locked inside.

Brown says he was "terrified that he could be put on a plane at any moment and deported to Jamaica," according to the suit. But this time, ICE officials said they would at least look at his birth certificate. On April 27, his roommate emailed ICE a copy of the document, and officers "hastily" released him. He says he was then a multihour drive from his home with no access to a car. His roommate's daughter eventually picked him up.

"Before he left, they confiscated all the documents they had given him regarding his impending deportation," the suit says. After arriving home, he says, he fell into a depression and also lost the restaurant job he'd held for the past two years.

The ACLU says that Brown's case, sadly, is not unique and that "hundreds" of American citizens are likely wrongfully detained on deportation requests every year. The ACLU argues that local sheriffs should not trust the veracity of ICE's detainer requests and, therefore, should not honor them.

"In the last several years, ICE has placed immigration detainers on hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens, even though U.S. citizens are clearly not subject to removal or immigration detention," the suit says. "As a result, officials like the Sheriff who consistently effectuate ICE detainer requests are constantly at risk of carrying out unconstitutional seizures."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.