California leaders passed the sanctuary-state law two years ago to keep local law officers from becoming de facto extensions of federal immigration agents.
The bill was a reaction to President Trump’s ramping up efforts to detain and deport undocumented people who, the president said, were overwhelming border states like California.
Under Senate Bill 54, local sheriffs cannot routinely communicate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents whenever an undocumented suspect is in a local jail.
But that prohibition took on dangerous significance two weeks ago when an undocumented man, who had been in Merced County’s jail earlier this year, fired shots at sheriff’s deputies trying to take him into custody. One deputy sustained a shot to his leg, but it was not serious. Another shot was stopped by his bulletproof vest.
A manhunt and chase ensued, and the suspect fired at a CHP officer before being captured. Thankfully no innocent bystander was hurt.
But the case shows a serious weakness in the law that the Legislature must address before a member of the public gets killed and more law officers are put in high-risk situations unnecessarily.
The suspect, 51-year-old Guadalupe Lopez-Herrera of Dos Palos, was in the Merced County Jail for 45 days earlier this year for battery on a spouse and making criminal threats. Sheriff Vern Warnke said Lopez-Herrera badly beat his wife and shot of rounds from a gun inside their house with her and their children present.
He pleaded no contest in January to the misdemeanor charges, and was ordered to begin a year-long program for batterers. He completed his 45 days in jail and was released.
His wife also sought a restraining order to keep him from having contact with her and their children. She described him as “very jealous, controlling, very angry easily.”
“He has strangled me and (threatened) to kill me,” she told a judge. She added she was scared her children would be raised “without a mother.”
Limits under the law
Senate Bill 54, the so-called “sanctuary state” bill, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2017 and took affect on Jan. 1, 2018.
The measure prohibits local and state law enforcement from notifying federal immigration authorities of an inmate’s release, or transfer an inmate to federal custody, unless there is a federal warrant or the person has been convicted of one of the more than 800 crimes listed in a revision of the legislation.
In the case of Lopez-Herrera, his misdemeanor conviction meant Merced County could not inform Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he was about to be released as the end of his 45-day sentence neared.
Warnke wants the law to be revised so that if he thinks an undocumented person in the jail is too dangerous to be released, he would have the latitude to hold that person and notify ICE about that inmate. Warnke would have done that with Lopez-Herrera.
David Jennings, ICE’s Northern California field office director of enforcement and removal operations, goes a step further and wants the law changed so local deputies can again work with his agents inside jails for safe transfers of undocumented inmates. As it is now, ICE agents have to track down those undocumented people where they live and work. As Lopez-Herrera showed, that can be risky.
Must not happen again
After Lopez-Herrera fled Dos Palos, he went to Paso Robles, where his estranged wife’s family lived. He had said he would kill them.
Merced County deputies went there to stop any violence, and once they arrived, the man fled back toward the Valley. That led to a high-speed chase through rural San Luis Obispo and Kings counties, with the man firing on a CHP officer. Authorities finally caught him in Kettleman City.
Lopez-Herrera should never have been allowed to live freely once he completed his earlier jail term. He should have been deported then and there. As it was, for another five-plus months his wife had to live under the threat of him harming her.
Now that he has returned behind bars, California taxpayers get to pay for his prosecution. Assuming conviction, the state will then pay for all the costs associated with his incarceration.
This is not what Senate Bill 54 was meant to accomplish. Valley legislators should draft new legislation to allow sheriffs to work with federal immigration authorities in the specific cases of violent undocumented inmates who remain a threat. The Legislature should respect the professional judgment of the sheriffs in these cases, as their first priority is public safety.
The system now in place failed in the case of Lopez-Herrera, and it was only by God’s grace, a miracle or poor shooting that the Merced County deputy, or someone else, was not killed.