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Sheriff says Legislature to blame for Utah immigration pickle

Published August 25, 2014 10:19 pm

Courts • Salt Lake County settles lawsuit with man held for weeks after posting bail; sheriff blames a controversial 2008 state law.
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Sheriff Jim Winder said Monday it's not fair that Salt Lake County taxpayers had to foot the bill to settle a lawsuit stemming from jailers holding a possible undocumented immigrant for 46 days after he posted bail — a situation Winder blamed on the Legislature.

Winder said despite opposition from himself and other local law officers, the Legislature enacted the law in 2008 that led to the jailers holding a suspect for weeks, even though he should have been freed after posting bail.

The county has now settled a federal court lawsuit for $75,000 brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of Enrique Uroza, who in 2011 was a 22-year-old Weber State University student who had been arrested for forgery.

The charges were later dismissed, but not before Uroza ­— who was born in Mexico and grew up in California ­­— spent weeks in jail because he told jailers he was born outside the United States and a policy required that he be held while his immigration status was investigated.

Winder said that policy was implemented as a result of Senate Bill 81, which was passed by the Legislature in 2008 and mandated local law enforcement to look into a detainee's immigration status if he or she was suspected of not having legal immigration status.

"My frustration is we shouldn't have been put in the position to have to argue this because it was a state mandate that now is burdening the county," Winder told reporters at a news conference.

John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU in Utah, said the constitutional rights organization agreed to settle because the sheriff's office in 2011 had changed its policies as part of talks with the ACLU and no longer holds suspects for immigration checks.

The group wanted the policy change because "local law enforcement doesn't have any power [under federal law] to detain somebody for the sole reason of checking immigration status," Mejia said.

Winder said when a prisoner tells jail officials he or she was born in a foreign country they now notify federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who then are required to take that person from the Salt Lake County jail if they wish to hold them pending an immigration status investigation.

Uroza's lawsuit remains pending against federal officials and the Immigration agency.

Mejia declined to say where Uroza is currently.

tharvey@sltrib.com