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Optional Marijuana Arrests In Miami Lead To Immigration Problems

Eric Broder Van Dyke/flickr

A recent series of stories by the Miami New Times found that police in Miami-Dade County have made tens of thousands of arrests for small amounts of marijuana, even after a 2015 policy allowed them to issue civil citations for those same offenses.

Those optional arrests have at times led to life-changing consequences for the suspects.

Several of the people charged with possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana have since been issued requests for detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a review of county jail booking records. That often marks the beginning of the deportation process.

At a townhouse with a sun-cracked wooden facade in Overtown, Diego Rodriguez spoke about his former neighbor, a Cuban national who records show was arrested last month on a marijuana charge. Upon being booked into Miami-Dade County Jail, ICE requested that the county hold him for an additional 48 hours until officers could pick him up.

“Last we heard he was detained after he ran into some trouble with the law,” said Rodriguez. “We would always just see him going to work in the morning. He never bothered anyone around here.”

Rodriguez said the man’s roommate is keeping his things in his old room in hopes that he might somehow get out. Federal search records show the man is being held by immigration officials in Krome Detention Center.

“He doesn’t have any family around here and he hasn’t come back home yet, so where else would he be?” asked Rodriguez.

Calls to Miami-Dade Corrections were not returned.

Between 2014 and early last year, Miami-Dade County did not honor the requests from ICE as a matter of policy, unless it concerned someone who committed a serious, “non-bondable” offense. Five days after President Donald Trump came into office, he issued an executive order threatening to withhold funding from places like Miami-Dade County that did not honor the voluntary requests to hold suspected undocumented immigrants for federal officials.

The next day, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued an executive order of his own, ordering the county to honor the requests. The move, later ratified by the Miami-Dade County Commission, made the county the first major metropolitan area in the U.S. to change its change its policy following threats by the president.

Miami-Dade County has since 2015 given officers the discretion to either make an arrest or issue a civil citation for possession of marijuana and other minor crimes like illegal possession of a milk crate, littering and loitering. Since then, thousands of arrests have continued to happen.

The city of Miami -- where Rodriguez's neighbor was arrested -- signed off on the plan last year, although the New Times reports it was never fully implemented by the police department.

According to a review of county records, after Miami-Dade County started honoring federal detainer requests in January of 2017, 16 people have been detained after being booked into jail for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. Three people were the subject of detention requests following charges for drug paraphernalia, which is also considered an optional arrest, according to the county policy.

It’s not clear how many people who were facing immigration holds after arrests for small amounts of marijuana have actually been deported. In Little Havana, Leticia Coelo, the aunt of a 25-year-old who was arrested and transfered to ICE custody earlier this year, said her nephew spent six months in detention trying to figure out his immigration status before finally getting out.

“He got with some lawyers to make sure his records were all straight and it took a while, but he’s out now,” Coelo said. “He had an order for deportation, but thank god we Got it settled.”

According to a report issued earlier this year by the Community Justice Project, people facing immigration holds on low-level offenses often opt not to pay bail in order to not immediately be transferred into ICE custody while they fight their immigration cases. This results in much longer stays in county jail over charges under which people in regular circumstances would regularly bond out.

The report put the indirect cost of honoring federal immigration detainer requests at  $12.5 million per year for Miami-Dade taxpayers. The bulk of that money comes from people spending more days in local jails on minor charges.

Last week, Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina announced he would be implementing a policy by the end of the month that will remove discretion from officers and require citations to be given for certain minor offenses like possession of marijuana.

Update: This piece was updated to show that Rodriguez' neighbor is being held in Krome Detention Center. 

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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