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Lawsuit: ACLU, British director Duncan Roy to accuse LA County Sheriff of illegally detaining him

2003 Sundance Film Festival

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Director Duncan Roy at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003.

A British man says he was detained unlawfully for 89 days in Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles on an immigration hold that should have never been in place.

Duncan Roy, a Malibu filmmaker, says he repeatedly tried to bail out of jail after an arrest for suspicion of misdemeanor extortion. But the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department wouldn't let him post bail for almost three months because immigration authorities had asked the department to hold him while they investigated his immigration status. 

Roy was in the country legally.

"No hot water, terrible food, you kind of get used to those things when you've been in jail for more than a month," Roy said Friday. "But what you never get used to is the fact that you're there without reason."

Roy's story and those of five other inmates—at least one of whom is still in jail—are the basis for a class action lawsuit filed in federal court Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU).

The lawsuit targets the widespread practice by local law enforcement authorities around the nation of detaining suspected undocumented immigrants at the request of immigration authorities. The suit also asks for compensation for people denied bail on the basis of immigration holds, as Roy claims he was.

Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the sheriff's department, said the policy of the department is if someone is able to post bail, the department accepts that bail. However, if someone has an immigration hold, "we follow federal law, which trumps local laws," she said.

As for the details of how these holds work, Nishida said the department has cooperated with the ACLU and will continue to do so to refine the policy and its practice. 

According to the ACLU of Southern California, about 2,100 inmates are in L.A. county jails on immigration holds. That's about 14 percent of the total jail population in L.A. According to records obtained by the group, some 20,000 people were detained on such holds in 2011 in L.A. 

ACLU Staff Attorney Jennie Pasquarella, it's unclear what exactly triggers a call to immigration authorities, and then, once they're in the loop, what factors prompt them to request an immigration hold. 

When a person is arrested by law enforcement or booked at a county jail, several things can get immigration authorities into the picture. The arrestee could tell authorities that he or she was born in a different country, prompting a call to ICE. Or, if the person is fingerprinted, those prints could match up to a national database that stores fingerprints of anyone who's had any contact with immigration services. 

"People are able to be held in confinement when there's a good basis for believing they've violated the law," said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU of Southern California's legal director. "Why is Sheriff Baca allowing the federal government to force the taxpayers of Los Angeles to be the jailer for their immigration practices when their immigration practices consist of saying, 'We don't even know if these people are deportable or not, we'd just like to check in on it?'" 

ACLU attorneys say there's no federal or state law that authorizes local law enforcement to cooperate with such holds.

In response to a request fro comment from ICE, spokeswoman Virginia Kice forwarded an agency statement on immigration holds. It says such holds are constitutional and are key to the federal government's strategy of targeting people who are in the country illegally and have committed crimes.  

"The identification and removal of criminal offenders and other public safety risks is ICE’s highest enforcement priority," the statement says. "And the agency is committed to continuing to work with local law enforcement to promote public safety and address potential threats to our communities.”

The Secretary of Homeland Security, the statement says, has the authority to issue “'regulations . . . necessary to carry out [her] authority' under the INA, and from ICE's general authority to detain individuals who are subject to removal or removal proceedings."

This lawsuit is one of a handful around the country targeting the use of immigration holds to detain people past their sentence date. According to the ACLU, it is the first suit to question the practice of refusing to accept bail on the basis of ICE detainer requests, a practice it says is widespread. 

Read the complete lawsuit below:

Roy v. L.A. County Complaint

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