The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado, ICE, and the City of Denver all declined to comment for this story.
The move to take Denver to court is part of a larger strategy the Trump administration has used to penalize so-called sanctuary cities, or places that the president and his advisers believe don't cooperate enough with ICE.
The spat between Denver and ICE went public in January, when ICE sent Denver interim sheriff Fran Gomez multiple subpoenas seeking more information about jail detainees who had either recently been released or were still in custody. The detainees had all been charged with serious crimes, like sexual assault and vehicular homicide.
The subpoenas sought information like home and work addresses and dates and places of birth of detainees. They also asked for bond information and any identification documents that the Denver Sheriff's Department had on file for the men wanted by ICE. Three of the men had already been released by the time the subpoenas were sent, while one is still in custody in a Denver jail.
Before January, ICE had never subpoenaed another law enforcement agency. Since then, ICE leadership has taunted local law enforcement officials in sanctuary cities like Denver.
"The individuals that fail to comply [with the subpoenas] could be held in contempt," acting ICE director Matthew Albence said during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on January 23. "They can 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."
Lawyers with the Denver City Attorney's Office responded to the request, saying the city wouldn't comply since the subpoenas aren't signed by a judge, and Denver doesn't share information that will be used in enforcement of immigration law. However, city ordinance allows local law enforcement officials to share information with federal authorities if it is used in a criminal immigration investigation.
Lawyers for the city also argued that ICE already has the information requested through the subpoenas.
"The fact that ICE has access to this data and in fact already has the data itself, undermines any assertion these subpoenas were issued in good faith and demonstrates that the information is not relevant to any legitimate inquiry as it is unnecessary and duplicative," Chad Sublet, a lawyer with the Denver Attorney's Office, wrote to Justice Department lawyers on February 3. "It is clear to Denver that ICE is using these administrative subpoenas for political purposes rather than pursuing a legitimate need."
Sublet also called Albence's statement on January 23 "an example of why these requests do not appear to be a legitimate law-enforcement-agency to law-enforcement-agency attempt to cooperate in a criminal investigatory matter."
But in their February 6 court submission, Justice Department attorneys argue that the requests are legitimate, that ICE doesn't have all the information that it's seeking, and that the information it does have may not be current. Additionally, the subjects of the subpoena requests have been deported multiples times each, the lawyers say, so they could potentially be charged with illegal re-entry, which is a criminal offense.
The dispute between Denver and ICE began in private at the end of 2019, when agents from ICE's local field office issued detainer requests regarding the detainees. ICE often files detainer requests to get local law enforcement agencies to hold a detainee it wants to arrest for up to 48 hours after the person would normally be released.
Denver's jails haven't abided by detainer requests for years. In 2019, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill that bans local law enforcement agencies from holding on to detainees for ICE past the time they would typically be released.
However, Denver's jails do notify ICE about the impending release of a detainee that the agency asks about.
ICE officials say the amount of time they're generally given by Denver before a detainee is released is not enough. Of the twenty recent releases Westword reviewed for this story, the city gave agents anywhere from a half-day to a thirty-minute heads-up.
"Nine times out of ten with Denver, they're already gone," Alethea Smock, a local spokesperson for ICE, previously told Westword.