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FULL STORY: ACLU wins case against Nobles County, Sheriff Kent Wilkening

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Prairie Justice Center (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Fifth Judicial District Assistant Chief Judge Gregory Anderson ruled Thursday in favor of the plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit filed in August 2018 against Nobles County and its sheriff, Kent Wilkening.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of several plaintiffs on the grounds that Wilkening was unlawfully detaining inmates who had met state release requirements — including posting bail, dismissal of charges and completion of sentence — so they could be adjudicated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The ACLU centered its case on several factors: immigration is a federal issue, and Minnesota sheriffs may not attempt to enforce it; immigration is a civil concern, not a criminal infraction; and without a warrant or probable cause, continued detainment is a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Shortly after the case was filed, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement in support of Wilkening and the county, saying that the sheriff's office detaining inmates beyond their sentences simplifies the process of transferring custody to ICE.

Anderson issued a temporary order in October 2018 that required Wilkening to release inmates as soon as they met state release requirements, to last throughout the duration of the court proceedings. Although Wilkening appealed this mandate, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld Anderson's order.

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Anderson's final ruling Thursday means the temporary memorandum has become a permanent injunction. Hereafter, Wilkening and Nobles County are prohibited from detaining inmates longer than required by the state.

The judge made his decision based on legal precedent. He wrote in his order that for a Minnesota sheriff to detain inmates on behalf of ICE, there must be a specific state law that allows this to happen. As none exist, such detention is unlawful.

The ACLU claimed that the plaintiffs were victims of false imprisonment. In order to legally support this accusation, Anderson said, there must be evidence that Wilkening and the county intended to detain the inmates, that actual confinement occurred and that the plaintiffs were aware they were being detained. Anderson said none of these elements are disputed.

Anderson also quoted from the ruling in the 1984 Minnesota case, Eilers vs. Coy, which notes: "It is not a defense to false imprisonment that the defendants may have acted with good motives."

The defense argued that Wilkening and the county qualify for immunity in this case, as they are required to exercise their judgment in the course of their duties to the public. Anderson contended that the decision to keep inmates beyond their satisfactory completion of state requirements is not a valid policy consideration that qualifies for immunity, adding that "an objective inquiry into the legal reasonableness of an official's actions establishes ... Wilkening’s actions as a willful or malicious wrong and therefore not subject to immunity."

Anderson's claim that Wilkening's actions were "willful and malicious" stems from the fact that "various entities — including the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association and the ACLU — have warned local law enforcement for years of the legal problems of relying on ICE detainers of the type in this case.

"Perhaps the most significant problem with the Defendants’ argument is that similar conduct and many of the same issues were the subject of a federal lawsuit involving the same Defendants," Anderson continued in his written order.

He quoted from the court proceedings of Orellana vs. Nobles County, a 2017 case levied against the county for the same reasons as the lawsuit filed in 2018. The judge in that case ordered that "'the Nobles County Jail Policy will be revised to read as follows: No individual should be held based solely on a federal immigration detainer, unless the person has been charged with a federal crime and the detainer is accompanied by either a warrant, affidavit of probable cause or removal order.'

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"Wilkening later acknowledged his agreement with the stipulation and that Nobles County would be bound by it," Anderson added. "However, the policy was not modified as agreed to in the settlement, and Defendants continued the previous practice."

The ACLU asked on behalf of the plaintiffs for the October 2018 temporary order to become a permanent injunction. In order for a permanent injunction to be granted, Anderson noted, it must pass a four-factor test: 1) the plaintiffs have "suffered an irreparable injury," 2) other legal remedies, such as suing for money, are not enough to compensate for the irreparable injury, 3) there is demonstrable inequity when considering the hardships faced by both sides and 4) a permanent injunction would not be a disservice to the public.

"Loss of liberty is irreparable injury," Anderson wrote. "Although monetary damages may be available, they are inadequate to adequately compensate someone for time spent in custody in violation of their loss of freedom and the attendant enjoyment of life that accompanies liberty."

The third factor is also satisfied, Anderson added. "Defendants will not suffer any hardship if the injunction remains. Defendants will simply be required to do what the law requires and which they have been doing for as long as the temporary injunction has been in place."

With the permanent injunction in place, the plaintiffs may seek monetary damages in further trials if they feel so inclined.

"Thanks to our brave plaintiffs who stood up to prevent this from happening to anyone else," the ACLU said in a Facebook post announcing the outcome of the case. "The Constitution had a good day today."

Wilkening could not be reached for comment, while Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson declined to comment on the ruling.

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Wilkening

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTS
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