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Massachusetts: State Court Officers May Not Enforce Immigration Detainers

by Matt Clarke

On July 24, 2017, a Massachusetts court held that state law provides no authority for court officers to arrest and hold an individual, solely on the basis of a federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time he or she would otherwise be entitled to release.

Sreynuon Lunn was arrested for robbery and arraigned in Boston Municipal Court in October 2016. The day before his arraignment, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a standard civil immigration detainer against Lunn, requesting that he be held for up to two days after he would otherwise be released, to allow immigration officials to take him into custody.

Unable to post $1,500 bond, Lunn remained in jail. Over three months later he was transported to the courthouse and turned over to court officers. Because the state was not ready for trial, the court dismissed the criminal charges for want of prosecution on February 6, 2017.

Lunn’s attorney brought up the immigration detainer and asked the court to order his client’s release nonetheless. The court did not rule on the request and court officers held Lunn for several hours in a courthouse holding cell until he was taken into custody by immigration officials.

Unaware of the federal arrest, the following day Lunn’s attorney filed a motion asking a single Supreme Judicial Court justice to order the Boston Municipal Court to release his client. The judge considered the matter moot, but recognizing that it addressed important recurring time-sensitive issues that might evade review, reserved the case and referred it to the full court.

The Suffolk County Supreme Judicial Court noted that a federal immigration detainer of this type was an action that was civil in nature, not criminal. It is a request, not a command backed up by statute, and imposes no mandatory obligations on state authorities.

The detainer “constitutes an arrest as a matter of Massachusetts law,” the Supreme Judicial Court held. However, neither federal nor state statutes confer the authority to make such an arrest on state officers. Therefore, the Court remanded the case for entry of a judgment dismissing Lunn’s case as moot but declaring that Massachusetts law provides no authority for state court officers to arrest and hold someone, solely on the basis of a federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time that they would otherwise be entitled to release from state custody.

New York attorney Emma C. Winger represented Lunn, and numerous amicus curiae briefs were filed on both sides in this case. See: Lunn v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 517, 78 N.E.3d 1143 (Mass. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Lunn v. Commonwealth