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Judge: Nobles County sheriff can't hold prisoners for ICE

A Blue Earth County judge determined that there was no reason for Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening to hold a prisoner in jail past her release date, even if she's undocumented.

A Blue Earth County judge determined that there was no reason for Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening to hold a prisoner in jail past her release date, even if she's undocumented. Nobles County Sheriff Department

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening made a habit of keeping certain prisoners behind bars after they were supposed to be released.

He suspected they might be undocumented immigrants. Wilkening was holding onto them until Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) could check their status. That included Rodrigo Esparza, a Worthington man who was arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property (including firearms, jewelry, and some cash) that spring.

Esparza claimed he was a legal resident with a green card, but that didn’t matter. When his family arrived to pay his bond, jail staff allegedly told them they weren’t letting Esparza out no matter what.

That summer, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Esparza and a few other prisoners, who say they were kept in jail days or weeks after they should have been released.

It’s been more than a year since then, with ups and downs, including a judge slapping Wilkening with a preemptory restraining order preventing him from holding more people for ICE in the meantime, and one of the plaintiffs claiming law enforcement was harassing her by dragging her back to jail without cause.

At last, we have a verdict. No more ICE holds for Wilkening and Nobles County.

On Thursday, Blue Earth District Judge Gregory Anderson determined Nobles County law enforcement had “failed to perform an official duty” by keeping the prisoners, as the “ICE 'warrants’ at issue do not comply with Minnesota law to permit further detention.”

As Anderson wrote in his decision: “It cannot be seriously argued that the subjective decision by the sheriff to detain one type of inmate after the legal basis for their detention has ended… permits statutory immunity. There is no basis to detain any person, regardless of their immigration status or even those charged with or convicted of a heinous offense, after he or she is entitled to be released at the completion of the sentence or payment of bail or bond.”

As MPR pointed out, Wilkening had previously argued that ICE detainees posed an added risk to the community. Judge Anderson wrote there isn't any evidence undocumented folks were any more dangerous than U.S. citizens. Should we also arbitrarily detain “drunk drivers,” “child molesters,” or “burglars”? he asked Wilkening.

The ruling means Nobles County faces a permanent injunction against doing this again. It also means the plaintiffs can seek damages for being deprived of their liberty all those months ago. In a press release issued by the ACLU, Esparza expressed some pride in his role in the ruling.

“Someone had to step up and stop this from happening to other people,” he said.