Sanctuary Cities Law Raises Constitutional Questions For County Sheriff

Apr 12, 2018

As Iowa’s local law enforcement officers are beginning to adjust to the state’s new sanctuary cities law, they’re running into some constitutional questions.

Credit Thomas Hawk via flickr creative commons /

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed SF 481 into law this week, setting new requirements for city police officers, county sheriffs and campus public safety officials when it comes to federal immigration enforcement. Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1st, local law enforcement must comply with federal detainer requests. But if there are no other outstanding charges, it’s not clear they can legally do that, says Muscatine County Sheriff C.J. Ryan.

“Well I think that’s probably the biggest issue inside this law," Ryan said. "That’s a real question that people have is…can you continue to hold this individual if all other lawful holds have been released with the exception of the ICE detainer?”

As their name suggests, up until this point detainer requests have been considered voluntary. But now if local agencies don't honor the documents, they could stand to lose all state funding. Forcing local governments to comply could expose them to legal challenges if suspects are held longer than they should be.

Sheriff Ryan serves a community with a significant immigrant population. According to a 2017 state analysis, 17.5 percent of the southeast Iowa county identifies as Latino, well above the state average of 5.8 percent. He says his officers' mission is separate and distinct from the mission of federal officers. 

"Can you continue to hold this individual if all other lawful holds have been released with the exception of the ICE detainer?" - Muscatine County Sheriff C.J. Ryan

"Certainly we are not, never have been, and I don’t anticipate being in the future…that our local law enforcement agencies will become ICE agents or enforce immigration and customs enforcement law," Ryan said. "That's not something that we do."

Ryan says ICE generally only gets involved after a suspect has been fingerprinted for another charge. Those fingerprints are entered into a database that's accessible to federal agents. ICE can then make inquiries and potentially issue a detainer request.

But if the suspect has been cleared on all other charges in the eyes of Sheriff Ryan, holding them any longer without probable cause of another offense could run afoul of their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Ryan says he and other sheriffs will be relying on legal advice as they work towards implementing the law.

"I would imagine that all sheriffs will probably consult with their county attorney and decide what's the best method to move forward," Ryan said.

Ryan says his officers don't make a distinction on the basis of legal status when they're enforcing the law and he doesn't expect that to change. 

A federal court blocked parts of a similar law in Texas because of constitutional issues. Although portions of the law have gone into effect, critics of the law say they’ll continue to challenge it.

The ACLU of Iowa for its part said in a written release "We are currently considering all our options to combat this harmful bill."