ACLU sues Essex County Sheriff for records on immigration involvement

Vermont Business Magazine The ACLU filed a lawsuit yesterday to obtain public records wrongfully withheld by the Essex County Sheriff’s Department (ECSD). At issue is the ECSD’s compliance with Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy (FIPP)—which limits local police involvement in immigration enforcement. The Department failed to provide copies of the records as required by state law, instead insisting that the ACLU travel to the sheriff’s office to first “inspect” the records in person, thus compelling the ACLU to file suit. 

Lia Ernst, Legal Director, ACLU of Vermont: “Vermont’s Public Records Act ensures access to public information, a foundation of transparent and accountable government. Sheriff Colby’s refusal to comply with that law is deeply troubling, particularly since the records concern his office’s compliance with the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy (FIPP). Local law enforcement should not be in the business of enforcing federal immigration law, and Vermont sheriffs need to be held accountable.”  

In January 2024, the ACLU requested records of documents related to ECSD’s practices on sharing information with federal immigration authorities, after a December 2023 article by the Community News Service suggested that ECSD either did not understand or was willfully not complying with FIPP.  

In part, the Community News Service reported on the concerns of Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby—who operates in the least populous county in Vermont—that an expanded FIPP would stymie officers’ ability to do their jobs. Per the article: “[Colby] emphasized that his priority is to keep residents within his jurisdiction safe, and people in his relatively remote part of the state get shaken up when they see unfamiliar folks. Up there, he said, everyone basically knows everyone. Colby said he would likely call immigration authorities after a traffic stop if he thought the people in the car were undocumented.” 

Such a call would likely violate the FIPP and, if based on race or other protected categories, could also violate the constitution. 

Following the ACLU’s public records request in January, Sheriff Colby advised in April that the records were available for in-person review but did not agree to send them electronically or by mail—the ACLU’s right as per the Vermont Public Records Act. Instead, Sheriff Colby reiterated that the ECSD’s “consistent practice” is to require requestors to appear in person to first inspect the records. The ECSD ignored or denied the ACLU’s multiple requests that it comply with the Public Records Act by honoring the requestor’s choice of whether to inspect or receive copies of public records. 

On May 23, the ACLU attempted one final time to avoid litigation, notifying Sheriff Colby that unless the ACLU received the records by mail no later than May 31, it would commence this lawsuit. As of the filing of this lawsuit, the ECSD has not produced copies of the records. 

Concerns about Vermont law enforcement entanglement in federal deportation operations are longstanding. In November 2018 the ACLU represented farmworker advocacy group Migrant Justice in Migrant Justice v. Wolf, a lawsuit alleging that the enforcement division of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) assisted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in surveilling, harassing, arresting, and detaining Migrant Justice members and leaders after they worked to pass Vermont’s Driver Privilege Card (DPC) law in 2013, allowing state residents to obtain driving privileges regardless of immigration status.  

Documents obtained through public record requests show that when plaintiffs submitted their DPC applications, the DMV sent their personal information directly to ICE, which then compiled dossiers on Migrant Justice leaders. The records show that DMV workers shared the plaintiffs’ information with ICE for discriminatory purposes, out of racial and anti-immigrant animus. Migrant Justice settled the lawsuit with DMV in January 2020 and with the federal defendants in October of that year. 

Find the ACLU’s complaint against the Essex County Sheriff’s Department here.

Source: 6.4.2024. ACLU of Vermont, Montpelier, VT 

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