SALT LAKE CITY — Enrique Uroza has lived in the United States since he was 3.
Today, he is a 22-year-old college student at Weber State University. Until last September, outside of a minor traffic ticket, he had no criminal history.
In September 2010, he was charged in 3rd District Court with three counts of forgery and two counts of theft by deception, third-degree felonies.
During a June 13 hearing, a judge ordered Uroza to be booked into jail on $5,000 bail. He posted bail just 10 minutes later. But he remained in the Salt Lake County Jail for nearly six weeks until Friday, when he was picked up by immigration officials and moved to another Utah jail.
Now, a battle is brewing over the length of time people suspected of being illegal immigrants can be held in the Salt Lake County Jail.
The American Civil Liberties Union says it is planning to sue the jail, possibly as early as next week, for illegally detaining inmates.
Darcy Goddard, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, says the jail has a policy of holding people behind bars — even after they've posted bail — to give U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials time to determine whether the person being held is in the U.S. illegally and if they want to take action.
The immigration holds result in some people being held in the jail 48 hours longer than than they would otherwise be released — and in some cases like Uroza's, even longer, Goddard said.
She believes it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
But Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said Thursday that the jail recently abandoned that policy because of ongoing discussions with advisers. Now, if someone is able to post bail, they will be released immediately and will not be held longer to give ICE officials time to look at them.
In Uroza's case, after he was booked into jail and posted bail, an extended hold was placed on him to give immigration officials time to look at him. About 24 hours later, ICE placed an official immigration detainer on him, according to the ACLU. That gained them 48 hours to determine whether they were going to take action.
But immigration officials didn't come until more than a month later. And Uroza stayed in jail the entire time, even though on Thursday, a judge ordered his immediate release while not dismissing the case against him.
Winder said the federal hold was still on Uroza even though the state hold was dismissed. That's why he was not released immediately from jail.
Uroza's attorney, Deborah Levi, said her client was "overwhelmed" by being held in jail for so long.
"The jail is acting like a vigilante immigration authority," she said.
His mother and brother tearfully described Friday how difficult the situation has been on Enrique, a gymnastics and cheerleading coach, and their entire family.
The policy of holding inmates was started because of SB81, Winder said.
"There's a section of the law that requires us to make a 'reasonable effort' to ensure individuals who may be here illegally are reviewed for their status," he said.
Because of the staffing situation of ICE, Winder said it is sometimes impossible for immigration officials to immediately review an inmate's status. The result of that was the jail used to hold some inmates longer.
"The whole issue is there are so few ICE agents," he said.
The inmates who were held for an extended period were identified by jail officers asking them directly if they were a U.S. citizen, Winder said. If they said 'no,' they were given an extended hold for ICE officials.
But now, Winder said the Salt Lake County Jail will no longer do that. He noted it may ultimately be an issue for the Utah Legislature.
As for the potential lawsuit, Winder said he was pleased the ACLU was getting involved, but would rather sit down and talk with them than have everyone waste money battling in court.
Winder said the jail still works closely with immigration officials and there will still be times when jail officials will inform ICE of cases that need immediate attention. For example, if a person is booked into jail for killing someone in a DUI accident and is suspected of being an illegal immigrant, Winder said the jail will communicate with ICE officials that they need to look at possibly putting an immigration detainer on that person immediately and not wait 48 hours, during which time the inmate may be able to bail out.
Winder said the situation with the jail potentially being sued by the ACLU for holding undocumented workers longer than normal isn't unique to Salt Lake County. It is a trend happening across the nation, he said.
In 2009, a Colorado resident spent 47 days in jail on a traffic violation because an immigration hold was placed on him. In May, a lawsuit filed against Jefferson County, Colo., by the ACLU was settled with the county agreeing to pay Luis Quezada $40,000 for being illegally held, and the U.S. government agreeing to pay another $50,000.
When told of Winder's change in jail policy, Goddard said Thursday it was the first she had heard of it. She said she would need to see the new policy in writing before deciding whether to hold off on filing a lawsuit. But the damages claim would likely remain, she said.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, says it's a "fine line" between making reasonable efforts to hold an illegal immigrant suspected of committing crimes versus violating a person's constitutional right to due process. Sandstrom sponsored a controversial enforcement bill, initially modeled after Arizona legislation, during the last legislative session.
"My main goal in doing this is to find the criminal element that is out there among the community of undocumented people," he said.59 comments on this story
Sandstrom said it would be unfortunate if the jail stopped its policy of doing "courtesy holds" for immigration officials. But he said he also recognizes that holding someone for a class B or class C misdemeanor for an extended period of time isn't right, either.
"If it gets excessive, we have to go back to due process and uphold that and not keep them on an indefinite amount of time. I think there's a fine line," he said. "We want to identify the true criminal element. ... But we have to follow our own legal system. If not, we're doing a disservice to the legal tradition we have."
He said one solution may be to set high bail for suspected illegal immigrants accused of committing serious crimes. That wouldn't be out of line with what happens to all inmates, whether they're U.S. citizens or not, Sandstrom said.