A federal judge has ordered the Denver sheriff to comply with subpoena requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that city officials had decided not to obey when the sheriff received them in January.
The judge's ruling, delivered April 20 in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, could bring to a close a legal battle between the City of Denver and the Trump administration that illuminated an acrimonious relationship over immigration enforcement.
The Denver City Attorney's Office declined to comment on the judge's opinion and whether Denver plans to continue the fight in court, since the city is "still evaluating next steps," according to Ryan Luby, a spokesperson for the office.
ICE did not return a request for comment.
The fight between ICE and Denver began several months ago, when the federal agency issued four subpoena requests seeking information about individuals that it wanted to detain. It was the first time that ICE had ever subpoenaed another law enforcement agency; since then, it has sent similar subpoena requests to law enforcement agencies in other states.
"Although ICE has not historically had a need to issue immigration subpoenas requesting information, the authority to issue immigration subpoenas is codified in federal law," Alethea Smock, a local ICE spokesperson, had previously told Westword.
The four individuals who were the focus of the subpoenas either had been or were detained in one of Denver's jails at the time the subpoenas were sent to the Denver Sheriff Department; all four had been arrested on serious charges, such as vehicular homicide, sexual assault and domestic violence. In the subpoenas, ICE requested biographical information and also such things as the addresses of where the individuals worked and lived.
Lawyers from the city attorney's office quickly let ICE know that the interim sheriff, Fran Gomez, wouldn't be complying with the subpoena requests unless and until a federal judge ordered her to do so. As part of their pushback against ICE, the attorneys argued that the requests were made for political reasons rather than for legitimate law enforcement purposes. Additionally, the city attorney's office told ICE via email that the agency already had the information it was seeking, and that reproducing it for them would be duplicative and a waste of time and money. Finally, the city informed ICE that it only complies with subpoena requests for criminal investigations, and has a policy of not assisting in the enforcement of civil immigration law.
The fight became public and nasty quickly.
While lawyers from both sides were emailing back and forth, Matthew Albence, the acting director of ICE, told reporters at a January press conference that Denver officials should "show up to court with a toothbrush, because they might not be going home that night, because they could be jailed for failure to comply with a lawful order from a judge."
In early February, attorneys representing ICE filed a motion in federal court to compel Gomez to comply with the subpoena requests. In court, lawyers for Denver continued to argue that the requests were made in bad faith, while lawyers representing ICE repeatedly rejected that assertion.
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And then on April 20, Judge Michael E. Hegarty ruled in ICE's favor, saying that Gomez had to comply with the subpoena requests.
In particular, Hegarty rejected the City of Denver's argument that the requests were an overly wasteful or burdensome use of resources, and also rejected the idea that the requests were made in bad faith. While Hegarty ruled that the city need not provide the biometric data ICE was seeking, since the federal agency already had that, he determined that the city must provide the other requested information. Hegarty also said that both subpoena requests related to civil immigration or criminal investigations are legitimate.
Hegarty declined to weigh in on the argument that city attorneys had raised about ICE changing its "exercise of discretion" in choosing to use the subpoenas. "That is a matter of political discussion and not an appropriate consideration for this court," he determined.
"If such subpoenas become a regular occurrence," the judge concluded, "then some day a federal court may have a more difficult decision, but this is not that day."