In December 2010, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project filed suit in an Allentown, PA federal court on behalf of Ernesto Galarza, a New Jersey-born U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent who was held illegally for three days in the Lehigh County Prison. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents requested his detention on the baseless assertion that he might be an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
In November 2008, Galarza was mistakenly swept up in a series of drug arrests by Allentown police aimed at, among others, the construction contractor for whom he worked. Galarza had nothing to do with the crimes and was later found innocent, but he was taken into custody along with the other arrestees and was jailed at the Lehigh County Prison. At the time of his arrest, he had his Pennsylvania driver’s license and his Social Security Card in his wallet, and he told local officials that he was born in Perth Amboy, NJ. Yet, because of his race, an Allentown police investigator called ICE, suggesting that he might be an undocumented immigrant. Based on this discriminatory tip, ICE issued an immigration detainer, asking prison officials to hold Galarza while ICE investigated his citizenship and immigration status. Galarza posted bail the day after his arrest, but, because of the ICE detainer, Lehigh County Prison did not release him. Instead, it kept him in jail—without a warrant, a court order, or even an explanation—for the next three days. He was finally released when an ICE agent arrived to interrogate him and confirmed that he was a U.S. citizen.
Our lawsuit argued that by causing Galarza to be held in jail for days based on nothing but an ICE detainer, officials from ICE, the Lehigh County Prison and the Allentown Police Department collaborated to violate his civil rights. We sought damages for Galarza, who lost a part-time job and wages as a result of his imprisonment.
In April 2012, the district court ruled largely in Galarza’s favor and denied most of the individual defendants’ motions to dismiss, holding that the local police investigator who called ICE and ICE agent who issued the detainer could both be held liable for violating Galarza’s rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. The district court granted Lehigh County’s motion to dismiss, however, and we appealed that portion of the decision to the .S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit,
In May 2014, the Third Circuit ruled in our favor, holding that states and localities are not required to imprison people based on ICE detainers. The court recognized that ICE detainers are merely requests, that Lehigh County was free to disregard the ICE detainer, and that it therefore shares in the responsibility for violating Galarza’s Fourth Amendment and due process rights. The Third Circuit’s decision was the first Court of Appeals decision in the country to squarely address this issue.
All the defendants have now settled, and the case is closed. The United States and the City of Allentown together paid Galarza $50,000, and Lehigh County paid $95,000 in damages and attorney’s fees. In addition, the Lehigh County Board of Commissions voted unanimously to end the County’s policy of imprisoning people on ICE detainers.
Mr. Galarza was represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, Jon Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP, and Seth Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.