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Keys Man - And U.S. Citizen - Sues Monroe Sheriff Over Mistaken Immigration Detainment

Gwen Filosa
A Key West man who was held by the Monroe County sheriff's office on a mistaken immigration hold is suing the sheriff.

A Keys man who was held at the Monroe County jail on a federal immigration detainer — even though he's a U.S. citizen — is now suing Monroe Sheriff Rick Ramsay in federal court.

Peter Brown, 50, was threatened with deportation to Jamaica and mocked by corrections deputies when he told them it was a mistake, according to the lawsuit filed Monday on his behalf by the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay released a statement Tuesday in response to the lawsuit.

Ramsay said local law enforcement agencies are caught in the middle of a national political argument about immigration. He said Peter Brown's case was one of mistaken identity — and the mistake was that of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"My office was notified in writing by ICE that they had a final order of deportation signed by a federal judge for Mr. Brown," Ramsay said. "ICE additionally stated, in writing, that they had confirmed Mr. Brown's identity via biometrics and records checks."

Ramsay says he has no authority to release inmates who are held on immigration charges. But he says the case has already led to changes in procedure at the Monroe County jail.

"I immediately took action when notified of this matter months ago," Ramsay said. "I ordered the Sheriff's Office detention deputies to immediately notify ICE of detainees' claims of citizenship and to follow up with those claims."

According to the suit:

Brown turned himself in to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office on April 5 on a probation violation — he had tested positive for marijuana.

Credit Monroe County Sheriff's Office
Peter Brown turned himself in to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office on a probation violation - and found himself held on an immigration detainment, even though he is a U.S. citizen.

The sheriff's office sent Brown's fingerprints to the FBI, which forwarded the fingerprints to ICE.

An ICE officer faxed the jail a detainer form, requesting Brown be held. "For Mr. Brown, boxes were checked indicating that he had a final removal order and unspecified 'biometric confirmation,'" according to the lawsuit.

Brown was "shocked and frightened to learn he had been flagged for deportation" to Jamaica, a place he had no connection to and had visited for one day on a cruise ship, according to the suit. He and a friend from work told the sheriff's office he was born in Philadelphia, but no one listened or offered to help, according to the complaint.

After a local court hearing on the probation violation on April 26, the sheriff's office re-arrested Brown and took him back to jail, where he was detained on the ICE hold. When he told them again he was a U.S. citizen, "The Sheriff's officers mocked him. After Mr. Brown told them he was born in Philadelphia, one of the guards sang him the theme song to the 1990s TV show 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' - which references being 'born and raised' in West Philadelphia."

The next day, Brown was transferred to the Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade. Before he left, "Jail staff again mocked him," according to the complaint. "One of them told Mr. Brown 'Yeah, whatever mon, everything's gonna be alright' in a Jamaican accent."

At Krome, Brown told the ICE agents he was a U.S. citizen — and they agreed to look at his birth certificate. Brown's roommate emailed it to ICE and the agency "hastily arranged for his release" — leaving him alone on the mainland, with no way to get home to Key West.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Monroe Sheriff Rick Ramsay

The suit alleges Brown suffered "serious emotional consequences" because of the mistaken threat of deportment.

"After returning home, he was severely depressed both because of the terror he had just experienced and because of the demeaning treatment he suffered at the hands of the Sheriff's officers," the lawsuit states. He had lost his longtime job at Fogarty's restaurant and was unable to search for a new one right after getting out. After about two weeks, he got a new job working at a local deli.

The lawsuit alleging violation of Brown's Fourth Amendment rights against unconstitutional seizure and false imprisonment under Florida law was filed Monday in U.S. District Court.

Amien Kacou, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, said it's unclear yet whether the case will be heard in Miami or Key West.

He also pointed out that Brown is not the only U.S. citizen who has been mistakenly held by local officials on an ICE detainer, and questioned whether local law enforcement should be working on behalf of federal immigration authorities.

"The sheriff should be more transparent about the real exposure, legal, financial that he's really bringing to his jurisdiction through these agreements that we think are not very well understood by local officials," Kacou said.

In an email, Monroe Sheriff's Office spokesman Adam Linhardt said the sheriff's office "does not comment on pending litigation."

Note: This story was updated on Dec. 4 to include a statement from Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay.