ACLU Files Suit Against Lake County Sheriff, City of Tavares for Unlawfully Detaining Mother of Four

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
January 25, 2011 12:00 am

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MIAMI, FL – The ACLU of Florida today filed suits in state and federal court against the Lake County Sheriff and the City of Tavares for unlawfully detaining Rita Cote, a Tavares mother of four who was illegally arrested and detained by Tavares and Lake County law officers in February, 2009.

In February 2009, Cote was translating between police and her sister, who did not speak English, and had dialed 9-1-1 to report that she (Cole’s sister) was the victim of domestic assault. Although Mrs. Cote’s sister had bruises on her neck and made several pleas for the police to press charges against her assailant, Tavares police officers instead arrested Mrs. Cote who could not provide proof of U.S. citizenship.

Following her arrest, Mrs. Cote was detained for seven days in Lake County Detention Center without a warrant, without being charged, and without seeing a judge. After the ACLU intervened to challenge her illegal arrest and detention, Mrs. Cote was transferred to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Orlando and transferred to Broward County, where she was detained far from her husband and children for an additional week.

The ACLU of Florida, which filed a habeas corpus petition in February, 2009 that led to Mrs. Cote’s release, will represent her in the two cases filed today. Cote will be represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Howard Marks of Winter Park and ACLU of Florida Senior Staff Attorney Glenn Katon.

“Neither the city of Tavares nor Lake County had any legal authority or cause to detain Mrs. Cote,” stated Katon. “Mrs. Cote’s effort to help the police and protect her sister was repaid with more than two weeks in jail cells separated from her husband and young children, without charge or process.”

In July, 2009 ACLU of Florida notified all Florida law enforcement agencies of the lack of legal basis for and potential “significant liability” associated with arrest and detention actions similar to those in the Cote case.

“The Lake County Sheriff’s Office has tried to characterize Mrs. Cote’s ordeal as a case of someone ‘falling through the cracks,'” continued Katon. “The truth is, no law enforcement entity can arrest and detain someone without cause or charge as the agencies did to Mrs. Cote. We hope this case will make clear what can happen when engaging in these illegal practices.”

Though Mrs. Cote was brought to this country as a minor and is an undocumented mother of four, there is no legal authority for Florida local law enforcement officials to detain anyone in this situation. Cote is now working with an immigration attorney to resolve her legal status.

“Regardless of her immigration status,” noted attorney Marks, “Florida law enforcement officers cannot arrest and detain a person who is not suspected of committing any crime.”

“Nothing about the actions of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office indicates they’ve taken this matter seriously. To this point, it has all just been political theater to them,” said Robert Cote, Rita’s husband, the father of their four small children, a U.S. citizen and a Gulf War Veteran. “We hope these suits will get their attention and deliver some overdue accountability for the way my wife and family have been treated.”

A PDF of the Federal Complaint filed today can be found here:

A PDF of the July 2009 letter sent to law enforcement agencies can be found here:

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