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Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas has taken yet another step to limit cooperation between his deputies and federal immigration officials.

Freitas recently informed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, that his office will no longer honor requests for an immigration hold in the local jail unless the requests are supported by probable cause, such as an arrest warrant.

In a May 7 letter to ICE assistant field office director Craig Meyer in San Francisco, Freitas pointed out that recent court decisions have found that local law enforcement officers could potentially expose themselves to civil rights lawsuits for honoring immigration detainers without a showing of probable cause.

"These court orders clarify that ICE immigration detainers are non-mandatory requests only and that local law enforcement agencies are free to disregard ICE detainers," Freitas wrote.

One of the court decision Freitas cited was Galarza v. Szalczyk, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in March that states and localities are not required to keep suspected undocumented immigrants in jail on immigration detainers.

The case involves a New Jersey-born U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent named Ernesto Galarza, who was held for three days in the Lehigh County Jail in Pennsylvania on an immigration detainer. Immigration officials said they thought he was an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

In the other court ruling, Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County, the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., found in April that county officials had violated an immigrant woman's Fourth Amendment rights by jailing her beyond the time ordered by a local judge. County officials argued that they were honoring a federal immigration detainer they understood to be mandatory, but the federal judge rejected that position.

"The case showed that the county could be liable for holding someone when ICE did not have probable cause if the county does it for ICE," said Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney.

Coshnear applauded Freitas's decision to seek probable cause warrants.

"It's a big step. It's an important step in recognizing the due-process rights of immigrants," he said.

Local immigration advocates and attorneys have long argued that U.S. citizens sometimes end up being wrongfully held on immigration holds.

Late last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law called the Trust Act, which essentially limits cooperation between local law enforcement officials and federal immigration agents to cases involving undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

In response, Freitas ordered jail officials to reject requests for immigration holds unless the suspect was charged with or convicted of violent or serious felonies. Freitas's latest policy move further limits requests to those that are supported by an arrest warrant.

The Trust Act seeks to resolve what critics say is a massive overreach in a federal program known as Secure Communities. The program was meant to target undocumented immigrants who had committed serious and violent crimes by placing federal holds, or detainers, on them as they passed through local jails.

But such holds also resulted in the detention of countless immigrants who were in jail only on minor offenses such as traffic violations.

The Trust Act provides greater local discretion that allows law enforcement officials to focus resources on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

Coshnear said the recent court ruling in Oregon cited by Freitas will require a probable cause order or warrant to be signed by a judge. He said that often in immigration proceedings ICE agents themselves sign warrants that "aren't even reviewed by judges."

"So we have to be careful," Coshnear said. "In order to comply with the Oregon court, what Sheriff Freitas really needs to see is a judicial warrant, one where a judge has evaluated the probable cause."

ICE said it would still seek local help in going after dangerous immigrants.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work cooperatively with our law enforcement partners as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals, public safety threats, or other priorities," said ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com