The ongoing debate over immigration reform has thrown the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office—and Senate Bill 54—into the national spotlight.
In a speech last month to the California Peace Officers’ Association, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the bill prompted the local sheriff’s department to reject a request by the Immigration Control Enforcement in January to hold an undocumented immigrant who had been suspected of sexually abusing a child two years earlier.
“Instead of being removed this country, he was released back into the community, and now our federal law enforcement will need to find him and arrest him wherever he may be,” Sessions said.
SB 54—known as the sanctuary state law—prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies “from using money or personnel to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes.”
It also forbids law enforcement from notifying ICE if an undocumented immigrant accused of a serious or violent crime is set to be released unless the accused has been arrested, booked and appeared before a judge.
Proponents of the law say SB 54 allows undocumented immigrants to interact with law enforcement without fear of being deported. But opponents, like Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, argue that it limits the necessary communication between different law enforcement agencies.
The case Sessions mentioned in his speech involves an undocumented Moorpark resident.
In April 2016, a 13-year-old girl reported that she had been the victim of continuous sexual abuse. During an investigation, the suspect, Jose Vaca, a 34-year-old Moorpark resident, was believed to have fled to Mexico.
A $100,000 warrant for his arrest was issued in June 2016.
After months on the lam, Vaca was apprehended in Ventura County on New Year’s Day 2018. He posted $8,000 bond Jan. 2 and was released before going in front of a judge.
Due to the constraints of SB 54, which went into effect Jan. 1, Buschow said detectives were not allowed to inform ICE about Vaca’s impending release, though police had received a request from ICE to hold the suspect.
“During that 25 hours that (Vaca) was in our custody, we received a hold from ICE about him, and prior to Jan. 1 we would have contacted ICE to inform them,” he said. “We did not contact ICE because (the new law) would not (allow us to) notify ICE unless (Vaca) had already appeared in court . . . and that had not happened.”
But even without SB 54, police wouldn’t have been able to hold Vaca in jail for ICE, Buschow said.
The federal court ruling in the 2014 case Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County is interpreted by some law agencies to mean that jails in western states aren’t allowed to hold inmates for ICE beyond their scheduled release dates without a federal warrant.
Upon his release, Vaca was ordered to appear in court Jan. 19. He never showed.
Police believe he may have returned to Mexico. There’s a standing $250,000 bench warrant for his arrest.
Buschow said detectives are actively trying to locate him.
The person who reported the sexual abuse has been notified of the circumstances surrounding Vaca’s arrest and release. Police said she is living with family out of state.
Buschow said the passage of SB 54 has made police work tougher.
“It complicates things in the sense that you have conflicting expectations on the state side and on the federal side,” the sergeant said. “We as a law enforcement agency are caught in the middle of that. It does make things difficult.”
More than half-a-dozen California cities have rejected the sanctuary state law.
But SB 54’s proponents say the law makes California safer because it allows undocumented immigrants to report crimes to police and ask for help without fear of being deported.