This bill would let victims sue cities like Denver when undocumented immigrants commit crimes

A recent murder case shines a spotlight on the policy that nearly all Colorado sheriff’s departments have of not holding inmates on immigration detainers.

House district 15 representative Dave Williams at his desk. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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One of the men accused in a murder earlier this month at an RTD light rail station was not in this country legally. Ever Valles was arrested last year on charges of auto theft and considered a high priority for deportation. Nonetheless, he was able to post bond and walk free from the Denver jail in December. Less than two months later, police say Valles and Nathan Valdez robbed Tim Cruz at the Sheridan light rail station before Valdez, an American citizen, shot and killed Cruz.

This case is a devastating personal tragedy for Cruz’ friends and family. It also shines a spotlight on the policy that nearly all Colorado sheriff’s departments have of not holding inmates on what’s known as immigration detainers, requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jails to hang on to undocumented immigrant inmates until ICE agents can come and arrest them.

House district 15 representative Dave Williams at his desk. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; copolitics; legislature; state house; capitol;
State Rep. Dave Williams at his desk. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A bill introduced in the Colorado House by state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, would let crime victims and their families sue these jurisdictions and their elected officials and obtain damages when an undocumented immigrant is convicted of a crime against them.

“We have a problem in our state and in our country. This could be model legislation that would hold these lawless politicians accountable for letting criminals loose on the streets,” Williams told Fox News.

The bill will be debated Wednesday in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. This is the “kill” committee, but the legislation has earned Williams national attention and lawmakers in other states have taken up similar proposals.

“We’re going to turn up the heat and bring the pressure,” Williams said in his appearance on Fox. He said he’ll ask for the legislation to be reintroduced in the Republican-controlled Senate if it dies in the House.

Williams introduced his bill before Cruz was murdered, when Colorado mayors and chiefs of police were re-asserting that they would not enforce immigration law in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities.”

He’s calling it the “Colorado Politician Accountability Act.”

But there is little question that Cruz’s killing makes the debate that much more emotional. A family member told 9 News they are “livid” to think that Valles went free when he could have been picked up by immigration.

“Our family is in great pain over the loss of (Tim). His life was cut short by a senseless act that may have or could have been prevented,” the family said in a statement to 9 News.

“Denver Sheriff’s Dept. failed this family and our community. They and we deserve better,” Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican, tweeted.

“This is why we need to hold lawless politicians accountable,” Williams tweeted. “Shame on Dems for allowing this.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Denver Sheriff’s Department and the County Sheriffs of Colorado all believe that — far from being lawless — sheriff’s departments are following the law when they don’t keep people on immigration detainers. These detainers amount to a request to hold someone without a warrant and without any probable cause. And you just can’t do that.

“That’s not about a crime. That’s about a civil immigration violation,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.

Back in 2012, Arapahoe County held Claudia Valdez on an immigration detainer after she called 911 to report that a fight with her husband had turned physical. She was arrested, but her husband later admitted that he was the aggressor, and criminal charges against her were dropped. A judge ordered her released on her own recognizance, but the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department kept her in jail so that ICE could initiate deportation proceedings against her. Valdez, who has U.S. citizen children, is in the country illegally. She’s still fighting deportation today.

The ACLU of Colorado sued Arapahoe County and reached a settlement for $30,000 on behalf of Valdez in 2014. After that, Arapahoe County changed its policies, and the ACLU sent letters to all the county sheriffs, who also changed their policies. Courts around the country have repeatedly found that compliance with immigration detainers is voluntary and that jails can’t hold people on civil matters, which immigration enforcement is.

Silverstein said that if ICE considered Valles a deportation priority, it could have obtained a warrant at any point after he was arrested in October and before he was released in December. ICE also could have picked up Valles in the community. As someone who was out on bond, his residence would have been known to authorities. (I reached out to ICE for comment on this, and I’ll update if I hear back.)

“If federal authorities present us with a warrant or other detainer, signed by a judge or a magistrate, we hold those persons for federal authorities to pick up,” the County Sheriffs of Colorado said in an official position paper posted to their website. “However, the courts have ruled that we have no authority to hold arrestees on administrative holds that have not been reviewed and approved by federal judges or magistrates.

“Sheriffs have informed ICE that in order to comply with the 4th Amendment, we must get judicially approved holds or warrants. However, at this time, ICE chooses not to do this.”

And the Valdez case illustrates why that’s appropriate, Silverstein said. Witnesses and victims won’t want to come forward if they think they’ll get deported.

Here’s the Denver Sheriff’s Department’s full statement on the Valles case, which emphasizes separate responsibilities:

“The death of Tim Cruz was a tragedy, and the Denver Sheriff Department wishes to send its sincere condolences to his family and friends in this difficult time. The circumstances of this case painfully illustrate the difficult and separate responsibilities of local safety officials and federal immigration authorities.

“Denver has never, and will never, condone dangerous or violent individuals being on our streets, immigrants or not. However, detaining anyone without a criminal warrant is a violation of the 4th Amendment. Once individuals in Denver’s jails post a bond, the Sheriff Department has no legal ability to hold them without a warrant, as was the case with Ever Valles.

“Denver believes there has to be a better system for all of us to focus on criminals who mean harm while protecting residents who work hard every day and provide for their families. Denver is focused on enacting policies and practices that protect people’s safety and their rights, including the rights of immigrants, while allowing federal authorities to focus on immigration enforcement that removes dangerous and violent felons from our streets. We should all focus on creating a system where federal and local governments respect each other’s responsibilities and work together to close the gaps. Denver is committed to that effort.”

And yet, there are cities and counties around the country that do hold inmates on immigration detainers. I asked Silverstein why there seems to be such a patchwork of practices, if the law is so clear, and he honestly wasn’t sure.

What that means is that even if Williams’ bill were to become law, there likely would be some legal challenges over whether the state can let people sue a city or county for refusing to violate the Fourth Amendment and perhaps some more definitive finding about the constitutionality of immigration detainers.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.