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Recent killing by undocumented immigrant puts Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and ICE at odds

Santa Rosa police were investigating the slaying of a woman in her Russell Avenue apartment, pictured in the left corner, on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. Her boyfriend has been arrested in her death. (ELOISA RUANO GONZALEZ/ PD)

NICK RAHAIM,

The killing of a Santa Rosa woman by an undocumented immigrant two weeks ago has exposed a constitutional feud between federal and county governments over the detention of immigrants at the Sonoma County Jail.

The dispute stems from the release of a Guatemalan national, Nery Israel Estrada- Margos, 38, who bailed out of the jail Aug. 3, a day after being booked on domestic battery charges.

While in custody, Estrada- Margos’ fingerprints matched those in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement database.

The federal agency sent an immigration detainer request to jail officials, asking them to hold Estrada-Margos for up to 48 hours so it could take him into federal custody because he had returned to the country illegally after a 2008 deportation to Guatemala.

But the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t recognize such detainer requests. Estrada-Margos went free on $30,000 bail. Two weeks later, on Aug. 18, he turned himself into Santa Rosa police saying he killed his girlfriend, Veronica Cabrera Ramirez, 42, after a domestic dispute.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office maintains that holding an inmate for any length of time past their scheduled release because of immigration status is unconstitutional and violates an inmate’s Fourth Amendment rights.

“The county can be held liable for false imprisonment should an inmate be held past their release time,” said Sgt. Spencer Crum, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, citing a 2014 U.S. District Court case in Oregon.

Instead, the Sheriff’s Office treats ICE detainer requests as requests for notification of release, a Department of Homeland Security form. Before Estrada-Margos was released from custody, jail officials did notify ICE of his impending departure.

But James Schwab, a spokesman for ICE’s San Francisco office, contends the jail only gave a 16-minute notice before Estrada-Margos walked out the front door of the county jail.

“Sixteen minutes is typical. And look what happens when we don’t communicate with each other,” Schwab said, referencing the death of Cabrera Ramirez. “The majority of time we get a very short notice from the Sheriff’s Office.”

If the Sheriff’s Office gave ICE at least 48 hours notice of a flagged inmate’s release, agents would pick up every person for deportation proceedings, Schwab said.

As of Aug. 15, roughly 25 percent of the 176 inmates flagged by ICE this year have been picked up by federal immigration agents at the county jail, according to data recently released by the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Rob Giordano initiated a new policy Aug. 18 to limit cooperation with ICE at the county jail, the same day Cabrera Ramirez died in her home from undisclosed injuries, allegedly at the hands of Estrada-Margos.

While the Sheriff’s Office once responded to every ICE notification request, jail officials now only respond if a person has been convicted of a felony listed by the California Trust Act, a 2014 state law that limits immigration holds. The jail also responds when a flagged inmate has been convicted of a Trust Act misdemeanor and roughly a dozen other crimes within the last five years. The additional misdemeanors, chosen by Giordano, include DUIs, battery and sex crimes relating to minors.

Inmates are now also given the right through an attorney to contest the Sheriff’s Office decision to notify ICE of their release.

When the Sheriff’s Office does respond to an ICE request, it typically gives 24- to 48-hours notice before the inmate is released, Crum said.

But there are times when giving ICE a 48-hour notice would violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights. For example, when a judge dismisses an inmate’s case or a person posts bail, their release happens within hours, Crum said.

In the case of Estrada-Margos’ release, Crum disputes there was only a 16-minute notice given to ICE. Crum said it was a 45-minute notice.

ICE considers its detainer requests to be administrative warrants that allow for the detention of immigrants — whether in the country illegally or legally — for up to 48 hours, regardless of court cases that have ruled otherwise. Sonoma County disagrees, and will only hold an inmate when presented with a criminal warrant signed by a federal judge or magistrate that sustains probable cause.

California jails’ policies regulating cooperation with ICE differ from county to county. At the Marin County Jail, officials will not hold inmates on ICE detainer requests on constitutional grounds, but do respond to every request for notification of release, said Capt. Rick Navarro with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office.

In Napa County, jail officials also consider detainer requests to be unconstitutional, said Leonard Vare, director of the Napa County Department of Corrections. The Napa County Jail has a more restrictive policy than Sonoma County in responding to ICE notification requests of release.

Napa County Jail officials will only respond to ICE if an inmate has been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony outlined by the Trust Act while also fulfilling the legal notification requirement of the Truth Act, a 2017 state law that requires jail officials to notify inmates and their attorney that ICE has flagged them, Vare said.

“There’s no way that people who run jails can predict future behavior of anyone released from jail,” Vare said about the Estrada-Margos case. “You can only look at past behavior to see if this person presents a danger to the public.”

Estrada-Margos had no prior convictions when he was released from Sonoma County Jail Aug. 3. Had the new policy been in place, jail officials would not have notified ICE at all. Prior deportations do not count as prior convictions.

Estrada-Margos’ suspected killing of Cabrera Ramirez has left her two teen daughters in Santa Rosa without their mother and two teen sons in Guatemala without their father.

Estrada-Margos’ younger brother, Guillo Estrada, told The Press Democrat in a phone interview from his family’s hometown of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, that his family was shocked — especially Estrada-Margos’ wife — to hear he was suspected of killing his girlfriend.

Guillo Estrada said his brother was living in Oklahoma when he was first deported in 2008 but returned to the U.S. for work in 2012 or 2013. He kept in touch with his brother over the years and has never been known to be violent or aggressive.

“He was the family joker,” Guillo Estrada said in Spanish, but noted his brother was the first to find their father after he hanged himself 21 years ago.

“We don’t really know what happened,” Guillo Estrada said of his brother’s alleged violence in Santa Rosa. “(But) we ask the family for forgiveness.”

Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González contributed to this report.