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He was fined for cutting down a tree without a license. Then police called ICE.

Maria Villalta, center, sister of José Ricardo Villalta Canales, leads a news conference at Casa de Maryland in Langley Park on Monday.
Maria Villalta, center, sister of José Ricardo Villalta Canales, leads a news conference at Casa de Maryland in Langley Park on Monday. (Rebecca Tan/The Washington Post)

An undocumented immigrant from Maryland is suing a state police agency whose officers turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after fining him for improper removal of a tree.

José Ricardo Villalta Canales, 31, was helping a relative cut down a dead tree at his home in Rockville on Aug. 7 when he was approached by police from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said attorneys with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Villalta, who had no prior criminal record, did not have the appropriate license to cut down the tree, a violation of state law punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The police officers allegedly took five minutes to fine Villalta $320, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. But they detained him for more than two hours after making a routine check of a national database to see if he was the subject of any outstanding state, federal or local warrants.

Read the lawsuit filed in federal court on Villalta’s behalf

The database showed ICE had filed an administrative warrant for deportation, also known as a detainer.

Maryland state agencies are supposed to act only on judicial or criminal warrants, the Department of Natural Resources said in a recent letter to state lawmakers who had inquired about Villalta’s case.

But the officer acted on the administrative warrant, detaining Villalta until federal agents arrived. He was consequently arrested and has remained in ICE detention in Frederick County for more than three months.

His immigration attorney, Vincent Rivas-Flores of Konare Law, said there is a pending petition to reopen his immigration case in the Baltimore immigration court, in hopes of preventing his deportation.

“There was absolutely no lawful basis for his detention,” said Emily Gunston, deputy legal director of the lawyers committee. “There was no warrant for his arrest and no evidence that he had made a criminal offense.”

“This is not an ambiguous case,” said Azadeh Erfani, an associate counsel at the organization. “His rights were very much violated.”

A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But an Aug. 27 letter from acting superintendent Ernest Leatherbury Jr. to Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery) said the agency was revising its policies to make clear that officers should act only on judicial warrants, and would train officers “to ensure full compliance.”

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read the letter from the Maryland Natural Resources Police

Born in El Salvador, Villalta arrived in Montgomery County in 2006, at age 17, after crossing the border on his own, his attorneys said.

Before his arrest, he lived in Rockville and worked in roofing, helping to support his partner’s children and several nieces and nephews.

At a news conference Monday, Maria Villalta, 43, said her brother is a “family man” with many relatives in the Washington area. She said she recently visited him in detention and is worried by how depressed and withdrawn he seemed.

“We want him to come home, where he belongs,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Villalta’s arrest comes amid months of heated debate over immigration enforcement in the region and across the country, with the issue growing into a bitter dividing line between supporters and opponents of President Trump.

In July, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) issued a sweeping executive order prohibiting all executive-branch departments in the county of 1 million, including police, from assisting in federal immigration investigations.

The decision was criticized by the White House and the acting director of ICE. It also sparked local backlash that boiled over in September with dueling protests outside county government headquarters in Rockville.

Last week, lawmakers in neighboring Prince George’s County unanimously approved a bill barring all county agencies from federal immigration enforcement, setting the stage for what advocates say will be a push for similar legislation at the state level. The Prince George’s legislation came after county officers were found to have acted on administrative warrants they flagged in the federal database, similar to Villalta’s case.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) said the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus plans to revive the campaign for the Trust Act — a sanctuary bill that failed in Annapolis in 2017 — in the legislative session that begins in January.

Villalta’s attorneys said they believe what happened to him is part of a broader pattern of behavior at the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Advocates and experts caution that such arrests can dissuade immigrant communities from working with law enforcement on public safety issues and criminal investigations.

In New Orleans, the detention and potential deportation of an immigrant who flagged safety concerns has hampered an investigation into a construction site disaster that killed three people and injured dozens of others. In the Washington region, advocates say, it has discouraged victims of domestic abuse from pursuing legal recourse against their abusers.

“We are creating a situation where an entire community of people are afraid to have any sort of interaction with law enforcement,” Gunston said. “This is just bad policing in addition to being unlawful.”

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