When Peter Sean Brown turned himself in to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in April, he expected to be back to work in no time at Fogarty’s, a laid-back restaurant in Key West, Fla., where diners flock for the Cajun chicken. He had been accused of a probation violation after testing positive for marijuana.
But instead of returning home with a court date, or passing a few days in custody, Brown would spend weeks behind bars, battling his way through a labyrinthine immigration nightmare made all the more baffling by his citizenship. He’s a native-born American.
His case tests the relationship between federal immigration operations and local law enforcement, exposing the flip side of the Trump administration’s row with “sanctuary cities” and revealing what can happen when local jurisdictions, rather than limiting their cooperation with federal officials, gain an incentive to aid immigration enforcement.
The next day, an ICE officer sent the jail a form requesting that Brown be held for removal from the country, he alleges. The sheriff’s office gave him a copy of the ICE detainer, as the form is known. Checked boxes indicated that he was to be deported because of unspecified “biometric information.”
The document frightened him, but even more so, it surprised him. He didn’t even know what ICE was at the time.
Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1968. He grew up in New Jersey, where he worked in restaurants and hotels for much of his 20s, and moved to Florida about a decade ago. He had a Florida driver’s license, which can be obtained only by citizens of the United States or noncitizens with legal authorization to be in the country.
“I am, and have always been, a citizen of the United States,” Brown said in a video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union and published Monday.
These facts appeared not to sway law enforcement officials, who told him that ICE was preparing to deport him to Jamaica — “a country where he has never lived and knows no one,” according to a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Los Angeles-based law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The suit accuses Richard A. Ramsay, Monroe County’s sheriff, of unlawfully arresting and detaining a U.S. citizen in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the right to be free from false imprisonment, as Florida law guarantees.
Monroe is among more than a dozen Florida counties that in January 2018 entered a new arrangement with ICE under what are called “Basic Ordering Agreements.” They stipulate that the federal agency compensate sheriffs to the tune of $50 for extending the detention of “criminal aliens,” as the National Sheriffs' Association put it in a statement. The ACLU argues that the setup has created a financial motive for sheriffs to execute every single detainer request they receive, despite countervailing evidence. This approach negates basic principles of policing, such as probable cause, the ACLU reasons, and turns people like Brown into collateral damage.
“Nobody should have to endure what he endured,” the complaint maintains. “He was kept in jail — away from his family, friends, and work — solely to facilitate his illegal deportation from the United States. The Sheriff’s Office ignored his pleas for weeks, mocked him, and led him to believe that he would soon find himself in a Jamaican prison. He suffered severe anxiety, fear, and trauma in the process.”
Though it doesn’t name ICE as a defendant, the case also reflects yet another front in the ACLU’s efforts to frustrate the president’s immigration agenda. The civil liberties group has notched notable victories in challenging President Trump’s hard-line policies in court, including his recent order declaring immigrants who enter illegally from Mexico ineligible for asylum.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office didn’t return a request for comment late Monday, by which time the office also hadn’t filed a formal response.
Brown is hardly the only U.S. citizen to face the threat of deportation. A Syracuse University study published in 2013 used ICE records to determine that the agency had placed detainers on 834 U.S. citizens over just a four-year period.
But the details of Brown’s case stand out, said Spencer Amdur, an ACLU attorney on the case.
“It’s particularly stark just how many indications the sheriff had that Peter Brown was a U.S. citizen,” Amdur said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It doesn’t happen in every case that not only is the person telling everybody he can find and filing written complaints, but the sheriff’s own records have his citizenship and birthplace. Peter was very assiduous.”
When Brown learned that he had been flagged for deportation, he “immediately began telling nearly every jail employee he encountered that he was a U.S. citizen, born in Philadelphia, and that they should not be holding him for ICE,” according to the complaint. Meanwhile, an online inmate locator, viewed by Brown’s friend, included eyebrow-raising information. By its account, Brown stood 7 feet tall, when in fact he is no more than 5-foot-7. It also listed an incorrect birthday. When his friend called the jail to say they had the wrong man, officers told her the only option was to inform ICE.
But all jail officials had to do to confirm the friend’s statements, as well as Brown’s, was to consult the inmate file maintained by the sheriff, the lawsuit claims. It observes that the file listed the inmate’s place of birth as “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."
Brown continued to press jail officials, promising that he could produce a birth certificate testifying to his right to be in the country. “They said they would hold him on the ICE detainer no matter what, regardless of his birth certificate,” the suit alleges.
That’s when Brown filed the first in a series of written complaints, on April 8. “I am and have always been a U.S. citizen,” he wrote. Sheriff’s officers responded three days later, saying they couldn’t help him. “Sir, are you asking to go to the law lib[rary?]” they wrote. “We can’t advise you on any legal process.”
He then called two phone numbers listed on the detainer form, according to the complaint. The first led to “an endless loop of automated messages." The second time he called, “the phone just rang and rang.”
He filed a second complaint eight days after the first. "I have been wrongly accused and threatened with deportation from ICE,” he wrote. In a reply the next day, a lieutenant wrote that “it is not up to us to determine the validity of the ICE hold,” as quoted in the lawsuit.
Brown followed up again the next day, imploring the sheriff: "I’m a US citizen. How is this even possible?” There was no response, according to the legal filing in federal court.
At his court hearing on his drug-related offense, the judge reinstated his probation and ordered an end to his detention on the probation violation. But the sheriff’s office didn’t release him, as the lawsuit recounts, instead rearresting him and returning him to the jail based on the initial ICE request.
Meanwhile, the complaint alleges, officers mocked his appeals. As Brown insisted that he was from Philadelphia, one of the guards sang the theme song from the 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
“In west Philadelphia born and raised, on the playground was where I spent most of my days, chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' all cool and all, shooting some b-ball outside of the school,” the song went.
To Brown, the situation was not humorous. He had been to Jamaica for only one day — on a cruise years ago — and knew no one there.
And as a gay man, “he feared that he would be subject to detention once he arrived,” the complaint states. Time magazine once branded the Caribbean nation “the most homophobic place on earth,” and Human Rights Watch has warned of “unchecked homophobic violence,” warning in a 2014 report that LGBT Jamaicans “are taunted; threatened; fired from their jobs, thrown out of their homes; beaten, stoned, raped, and even killed.”
Just over three weeks after he had first been detained, jail officers woke Brown and told him to pack his bags, according to the complaint. During the transfer procedure to Krome Detention Center in Miami, he continued to inform staff that he was a U.S. citizen. One of them put on a Jamaican accent and told him, “Yeah, whatever mon, everything’s gonna be alright,” the complaint alleges.
At Krome, Brown told ICE agents that he was a U.S. citizen, and they agreed to look at his birth certificate. His roommate emailed the document to an officer, the complaint reports, at which point the agency “hastily arranged for his release."
“Before he left, they confiscated all the documents they had given him regarding his impending deportation,” the suit maintains.
On April 27, he was freed in Miami, several hours from his home in the Keys. The daughter of Brown’s roommate came to retrieve him.
During his time behind bars, he had lost his job at the restaurant, and he couldn’t find work for two weeks, according to the lawsuit. The filing also points to “serious emotional consequences" of his detention.
“I would never have expected it in a million years that this would happen, and I can tell you it’s not a good feeling,” Brown said in the ACLU’s video. “There has to be a stop at some point, before it becomes all of us.”