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Santos v. Frederick County Board of Commissioners, No. 12-1980

Decided: August 7, 2013

Addressing Roxana Orellana Santos’s (“Santos”) appeal from the District Court for the District of Maryland’s dismissal of her 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, the Frederick County Sheriff, and two deputy sheriffs (“Defendants”), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision regarding Santos’s individual-capacity claims, vacated its decision regarding her municipal and official-capacity claims, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

In October 2008, while eating a sandwich and waiting for her shift to begin, Santos sat on a curb behind the Common Market food co-op where she worked as a dishwasher. As she ate, a Frederick County patrol car, apparently conducting a routine patrol of the area slowly approached her from her left. She remained seated and continued eating her sandwich. The deputies, Openshaw and Lynch, parked the patrol car and walked toward Santos. Openshaw stopped about six feet from Santos and asked if she spoke English, Lynch stood closer to the patrol car. Santos responded that she did not. Openshaw then asked several noninvasive questions in English, but the two had trouble communicating. He then asked if she had identification, and she responded in Spanish that she did not. Openshaw then stepped away from Santos to speak with Lynch near the patrol car. Soon thereafter, Santos recalled that she had her El Salvadoran national identification card in her purse. She remained seated but handed the card to Openshaw. The deputies then relayed Santos’s identification information to radio dispatch in order to run a warrant check. At some point during the warrant check but before dispatch had determined whether the warrant was active, Santos asked the deputies if there was any problem and Openshaw replied that there was not but gestured for her to remain seated.  Following the warrant check, dispatch informed the deputies that Santos had an outstanding ICE warrant for “immediate deportation.” Upon being informed that the warrant was active, the deputies placed Santos under arrest and transported her to a Maryland detention center. Approximately forty-five minutes after Santos’s arrest, ICE officials requested that the detention center hold Santos on ICE’s behalf. ICE initially held her in two Maryland facilities before transferring her to a jail in Massachusetts, where she stayed until her supervised release in November of 2008. In November 2009, Santos filed a Section 1983 complaint against the Defendants. The district court, concluding that the deputies did not violate Santos Fourth Amendment rights, granted the deputies motion for summary judgment and consequently dismissed the claims against all other Defendants. Santos moved for reconsideration, highlighting a number of federal court decisions after the district court’s summary judgment hearing holding that state and local governments lack inherent authority to enforce civil federal immigration law. The district court however denied Santos’s motion, holding that even if the Supreme Court’s landmark immigration decision in Arizona v. United States along with other federal court decisions suggested an “emerging consensus” that local officers may not enforce civil immigration law, the deputies were still entitled to qualified immunity for their conduct. Santos appealed.

On appeal, after determining that Santos was seized when Openshaw gestured for her to remain seated, the Fourth Circuit addressed the issue of whether the deputies violated her constitutional rights when they detained and subsequently arrested her based on the civil ICE warrant. Before getting to the merits of the case, however, the court found that the question was properly before it on appeal, as Santos had not abandoned any claim that the deputies’ actions constituted the unauthorized enforcement of federal civil immigration law despite an ambiguous statement made by her counsel during oral argument at the summary judgment motion hearing. Addressing the merits, the court first held that the deputies’ violated Santos’s rights under the Fourth Amendment at the time they seized her solely on the basis of the outstanding civil ICE warrant. Next, noting that Arizona v. United States makes clear that local law enforcement officers cannot arrest aliens for civil immigration violations absent direction or authorization by federal officials, the court rejected the Defendant’s contention that the deputies lawfully detained and arrested Santos because ICE officials did not request the deputies to detain Santos until a full forty-five minutes after her arrest. The Defendants next argued that the arrest was lawful because there was no evidence in the record that the ICE warrant was civil rather than criminal. However, after observing that the warrant was for “deportation,” a proceeding long characterized as civil in nature, the court found the record did indeed contain evidence the ICE warrant was civil in nature. Next, the court found that qualified immunity barred Santos’s individual capacity claims against the deputies because there was no controlling precedent, at the time the seizure took place, putting the deputies on notice that their actions violated Santos’s constitutional rights. Lastly, because qualified immunity does not extend to municipal defendants, the court vacated the district court’s dismissal of the claims against the Defendants’ in their official capacities and remanded the question of whether the deputies’ unconstitutional actions were attributable to an official policy or custom of the county or the actions of a final county policymaker.

Full Opinion

-W. Ryan Nichols