One Island, Two Jurisdictions: Police Forces Differ On Approach To Immigration Enforcement

Jun 22, 2017

Two body camera videos from the same Monroe County sheriff's sergeant recently garnered national attention. In the Keys, they have ignited a conversation about how undocumented immigrants may face differing approaches to enforcement on the same island.

On April 27, Monroe Sheriff's Sgt. David Lariz was dispatched to an accident on Stock Island, just outside the city of Key West. When he got to the scene, a man named Marcos Huete Hernandez was sitting on the ground next to his bicycle.

Lariz's  body camera records him asking Huete questions in English, even after determining Huete didn't  speak the language.

"Hey man — you speak English?" Lariz asks. "No, you speak Spanish, all right. You got ID? Passport? Passport, visa, what? ... You're illegal? Are you a legal citizen or no?"

In this still from a Monroe County Sheriff's Office body camera video, Marcos Huete sits on the ground after he was hit by a truck while riding his bike across a crosswalk. He was eventually cited for obstructing traffic — and taken into federal custody. He has been indicted on a charge of reentering the country without permission.
Credit Monroe County Sheriff's Office

Huete had been hit on his bike as he rode across a crosswalk. The Florida Highway Patrol later cited him on a charge of obstructing traffic. He is now in federal custody and has been indicted on a charge of being in the U.S. without permission after being deported in 2010.

A spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said the office didn't handle the accident (Florida Highway Patrol investigated) and that the sheriff's office did not notify Customs and Border Patrol.

'Horrific incident'

But after a local investigative website called The Blue Paper published a video that includes body cam footage, the story went national as an example of local police cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez released a statement saying, "This horrific incident demonstrates the sick culture the Trump administration is fostering that undermines the relationship between police and communities."

On May 23, the same sheriff's sergeant pulled over a car, this time within the city of Key West. The Blue Paper quickly picked up on that video, too. Nestor Duarte handed Lariz an ID from Argentina. The body cam recorded their interaction.

"You don't have any legal documents?" Lariz asks.

"No," Duarte answers.

"Why not? You've been here 16 years," Lariz responds.

Duarte eventually gives the reason: "Because I'm illegal," he says.

"Right," Lariz answers. "So why don't you have any legal documents? Sixteen years you've been here in the United States and you haven't bothered to do anything to get ... anything."

In that case, Lariz called Customs and Border Patrol. Duarte, who had been working as a chef at a local Cuban restaurant, is now in federal custody at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach.

The body cam videos surfaced just after the Key West City Commission passed a resolution declaring how it would approach those issues. Commissioner Richard Payne voted for the resolution.

"When we go about the normal business, our law enforcement taking care of safety for the people in the city of Key West, we're not going to inquire as to somebody's immigration status. We're not going to look into that," Payne said at the commission meeting. 

Payne, a retired circuit judge, said he found the city's resolution to be "perfectly written," in part because it doesn't contain the word "sanctuary."

'That's the federal people's job'

"It says we won't be enforcing federal law, which the 10th Amendment says we're not required to enforce federal law," he said. "That's the federal people's job. Not the state. Not the city."

But while the city police department does most of the local law enforcement on the island, the sheriff's office still has jurisdiction there.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay says his office does not have a policy about inquiring into immigration status, and it's up to the discretion of the individual officer.

"We encounter people all day long, every day. And our stance really has kind of been we're not out there trying to enforce immigration law," Ramsay said. "But by the same token, we're not a sanctuary sheriff's office. We uphold laws, rules and regulations. That's our job."

Even before the city passed its resolution, Key West Police Chief Donie Lee said he interpreted the role of local law enforcement differently from the sheriff.

Building trust with all members of the community

"I don't think that a police department, this police department, I don't think it's in our best interest to enforce immigration policy, especially when it's a federal responsibility," Lee said.

"Our goal is to try and build trust and relationships with all members of the community. We want everyone who's here, whether they're legal or not, to feel comfortable in coming forward to report crimes, to be witnesses of crime," Lee said. "And I think when we're out enforcing immigration enforcement, which again is a federal responsibility, I think that's just putting up barriers to that trust and relationship."

Ramsay acknowledges the optics were bad in the video of Lariz yelling at Huete while he's on the ground and said sheriff's supervisors had talked to the sergeant.

"It didn't sound like someone who was super-caring, and we want our sheriff's office no matter who they're out with to be courteous, polite, friendly, caring, caring about who you are, no matter who you are, what's going on and trying to render aid as need be," Ramsay says.

But there has been no formal discipline and Ramsay says he has no problem with Lariz asking about immigration status or notifying Customs and Border Patrol, as he did in the later traffic stop in Key West.

Natalia Duke, the Keys area captain for Women's March Florida, has asked the sheriff's office to clarify its policies.

"I think our residents have the right to know what to expect when encountering local law enforcement, whether they're stopped for a traffic violation or after they're hit by a car," she said.

'A pawn for a political question across the nation'

Ramsay says the two incidents have been blown out of proportion and his office isn't doing anything differently from the way it always has.

"We don't have our guys and gals out there trying to hunt people down. We had one officer that had two encounters," he said. "I think we are being put in a situation as almost a pawn for a political question across the nation."

Duke says the national political debate is relevant in the Keys.

"I don't think it's a pawn. I think it's just a reflection of what's happening on the political scene, and people are more aware," she said.

At least one Key West city commissioner has also asked for clarification from the sheriff's office and, after hearing back that there was no policy, has asked the city attorney to explore whether the sheriff's office might enter a memorandum of understanding with the city about immigration enforcement within city limits.

For now, in the city of Key West, the fate of  undocumented immigrants who encounter police may depend on which police agency — or which individual officer — they encounter.

You can read the full resolution from the City of Key West here: