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March 8, 2023

Marion County Sheriff’s Office changed its policies and paid damages after getting sued for unlawfully detaining a U.S. resident for ICE 

OCALA, Fla. – The Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in Florida settled a federal lawsuit for its illegal detention and referral of Neville Brooks, a lawful permanent resident, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). MCSO has also made changes to its discriminatory policies that resulted in Brooks’ illegal detention. 

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Zuckerman Spaeder LLP on behalf of Brooks, a permanent Florida resident from Jamaica who was detained by MCSO in August 2020 for over 12 hours after he posted bond and should have been released. He was infected with COVID-19 while detained.

As a result of the litigation, MCSO amended its policies to:

  • Make clear that when there is no ICE detainer or warrant, no person may be held in custody or subject to delayed release or otherwise denied release solely because they were born abroad;
  • End automatic notifications to ICE based on foreign birth alone;
  • Provide limits and guidelines for referrals to ICE; and
  • Establish a process for documenting such referrals and the factual basis for them.

MCSO also agreed to pay Brooks a settlement of $150,000 for damages, taking into account attorney’s fees and costs.

“I filed this lawsuit because I felt a responsibility to help make sure the Sheriff’s Office does not treat anyone else the way they treated me,” said Brooks. “I am grateful the court system allowed justice to be done in my case, and I hope this settlement inspires others — citizens and immigrants alike — to not be afraid to affirm their constitutional rights, which make this country great.”

Brooks’ arrest stemmed from MCSO’s discriminatory practice of detaining and referring to ICE all foreign-born individuals, or individuals perceived as foreign-born, regardless of their present nationality or lawful immigration status in this country. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently explained that this kind of policy is illegal. It is also illogical. Not only are lawful permanent residents like Brooks born in other countries, but so too are millions of other U.S. citizens.

MCSO had no justification to detain Brooks, except for profiling and a biased presumption that he was in the U.S. unlawfully based solely on his foreign birth, even though records clearly showed that he had a valid Social Security number and Florida commercial driver’s license, neither of which he could have obtained if he did not have lawful status.

MCSO participates in the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program, a flawed expansion of the controversial 287(g) program rolled out during the Trump administration. This case demonstrates the dangers of the 287(g) program and other anti-immigrant state and local measures in Florida in the past few years. Florida sheriffs and ICE claim that 287(g) and WSO agreements shield counties from liability, even when they violate the Constitution. But the settlement makes clear that neither can protect localities from the serious risk of lawsuits and liability.

“As we face a rising tide of anti-immigrant politics in Florida, this case reminds us to hold firm to the U.S. Constitution’s promise to protect the rights of every person in this country,” said Amien Kacou, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “This is especially important in a state where immigrants make up over 20 percent of the population. Florida sheriffs cannot contract away their duty to the Constitution. Those who betray the history of our state by discriminating against immigrants for political gain will be held accountable."

“We know that Neville Brooks was just one of many who were subject to MCSO’s discriminatory policies, and he was brave to challenge them head-on in court,” said My Khanh Ngo, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead counsel on this case. “We hope this settlement teaches a lesson to any other jurisdiction that discriminates against people based on foreign birth, and reinforces that states and localities should not be in the business of immigration enforcement.”

“Mr. Brooks is lawfully in this country and was detained because of where he was born. This is unconstitutional and should never have happened. We are pleased that he will receive damages for such unjust treatment and that the Sheriff’s Office will implement overdue changes to its unconstitutional policies,” commented Zuckerman Spaeder LLP attorneys Alyssa Howard and Jack Fernandez. “These policy changes are critical and will have a meaningful impact on the community.”

“This case is a clear example of how Floridians are becoming enmeshed in an unworkable, dragnet approach to immigration enforcement, leading to the illegal detention of people in Florida jails based solely on their national origin or even just perceived national origin,” stated Felix Montañez, senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. “When local law enforcement attempts to engage in federal immigration enforcement, it inevitably leads to racial profiling and undermines public safety. Law enforcement agencies throughout the state must adopt and implement policies that protect the constitutional rights of all, irrespective of a person's place of birth.”

The case, Brooks v. Woods, was filed and settled in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.