Judge says Florida ban on 'sanctuary cities' unconstitutional

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  • Judge said law was adopted with discriminatory motives
  • Expansive police discretion would result in racial profiling
  • Some provisions survived, such as ICE compliance requirement

(Reuters) - A federal judge has ruled that a Florida law banning municipalities from adopting "sanctuary" policies for immigrants in the U.S. illegally is unconstitutional, with her decision relying in part on support for the law among "anti-immigrant hate groups."

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom in Miami said in a 110-page ruling on Tuesday the 2019 law championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it was adopted with discriminatory motives.

Bloom had held a six-day bench trial in January on the lawsuit, which was brought by the City of South Miami and several advocacy and nonprofit groups.

The judge on Tuesday said the state's claim that the law was designed chiefly as a public safety measure was unsupported by crime statistics and other evidence, including the involvement of far-right groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform in drafting the statute.

"Allowing anti-immigrant hate groups that overtly promote xenophobic, nationalist, racist ideologies to be intimately involved in a bill's legislative process is a significant departure from procedural norms," Bloom wrote.

The judge did allow several provisions of the law to survive, including a requirement that local law enforcement comply with requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain individuals beyond their release date so they can be picked up by federal agents.

The offices of DeSantis and Florida Attorney Ashley Moody did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did the plaintiffs, who are represented by Florida Legal Services.

Florida State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican who sponsored the law, said it was adopted with public safety in mind and Bloom was "misled" in finding otherwise.

"I look forward to this ruling being overturned," Gruters said in an email.

The 2019 law prohibited a broad array of so-called "sanctuary policies," such as those limiting state and local police from assisting federal immigration officers and inquiring about individuals' immigration status. The statute also requires law enforcement agencies to use their "best efforts" to uphold federal immigration laws.

At least 10 other states, including Texas, Missouri and South Carolina, have enacted similar laws prohibiting sanctuary policies or denying funding to cities that adopt them.

Texas' motion to dismiss a challenge to a 2018 state law is pending. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that year declined to block the law from taking effect pending the outcome of the case.

DeSantis and other supporters of Florida's law said it would improve public safety by keeping criminals out of communities. But many Democrats and advocacy groups claimed the measure would discourage immigrant communities from cooperating with law enforcement and increase instances of racial profiling.

Bloom on Tuesday agreed with many of those criticisms, and said the law violated the equal-protection rights of Hispanic and Black people. The law was plainly designed to grant law enforcement officers expansive discretion, despite the knowledge that minority communities would bear the brunt of proactive policing, Bloom said.

"These discriminatory motives are made evident from the historical and ongoing pattern of racial discrimination by law enforcement and the growing reliance on an immigrant threat narrative to justify the enactment of anti-immigrant legislation across the nation," the judge wrote.

The case is City of South Miami v. DeSantis, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, No. 1:19-cv-22927.

For the plaintiffs: Alana Greer of Florida Legal Services and Rebecca Ann Sharpless of the University of Miami School of Law

For the state: Karen Ann Brodeen and James Percival of the Florida Attorney General's office

(This article has been updated to include a statement from Florida State Senator Joe Gruters.)

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.