Immigrant advocacy group sues sheriff’s office over access to documents

Story and photos by Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

A local immigrant advocacy group is taking Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson and the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office to court after unsuccessfully attempting to obtain certain documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The coalition, called Friends United for Equity & Grassroots Organizing, or FUEGO, made a request last July for 16 categories of public records pertaining to the sheriff’s office’s cooperation with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Judge John Stanley Hart Jr. presided over an initial hearing in the case on Wednesday afternoon in Harrisonburg/Rockingham County General District Court. Hart said he plans to rule on the case on April 22 at 1 p.m.

The documents FUEGO requested include the sheriff’s communications with ICE regarding inmates, records of any presence of ICE officials in the jails, immigration detainers issued by ICE, and the office’s practices for questioning inmates about their citizenship and immigration status. 

The sheriff’s office responded in August with some documents, including questions asked during all arrest intakes and information about vehicle checkpoints. Other requested documents could not be released, they said.

Boris Ozuna, representing FUEGO, filed a petition with the courts in February to try and compel the sheriff to release the documents. 

Boris Ozuna

“We would like to know if the sheriff is depriving local residents of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County of their basic right to be free and not be detained without probable cause,” Ozuna wrote in a press release from FUEGO. “Also, the public has the right to know the extent of the Sheriff’s collaboration with ICE and how much family separation this is creating in our community.”

In its petition, FUEGO argued that, under FOIA, the sheriff’s office should have identified “with reasonable particularity the subject matter of withheld portions, and cite, as to each category of withheld records, the specific code section that authorizes the withholding of the records.”

On March 9, two days before the case was heard in court, the attorney representing the sheriff’s office, Roaslie Pemberton Fessier of Timberlake Smith Attorneys at Law, provided the defendants and the courts with a letter citing a federal and a state code they said supported withholding the documents.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Fessier acknowledged that there may have been a “technical violation” in the sheriff’s first response in August, having not cited the codes supporting his decision. But, she said, “the sheriff has fully complied at this point.”

FUEGO is being represented by professor Sophia Gregg and student Joe LoPresti, of the University of Virginia School of Law’s Immigration Law Clinic. They argued that the codes cited by Fessier still do not justify the sheriff’s decision to withhold the documents, and that in some cases, the names of inmates could be redacted and the records then released.

“I realize you all disagree on a lot here,” said Hart, who gave the plaintiffs until March 25 to submit clarification on the exact types of information they seek. According to the timeline Hart laid out at the hearing, the defendants will have until April 8 to respond, prior to the final ruling on April 22.

Gregg told The Citizen she took on the case pro bono because the Immigration Law Clinic wants to support FUEGO’s desire to obtain “basic information about the goings-on in the sheriff’s office.” 

“The regular course of business of any public official is within the purview of FOIA,” Gregg said.

Sheriff Hutcheson declined to comment at this time as the case is still pending.

In February 2019, after speaking about ICE retainer policy with Sheriff Hutcheson, The Citizen filed a FOIA request with ICE requesting data on the number of inmates at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail remanded to ICE custody over the past decade. Nearly four months late, ICE said it had no records pertinent to the request.

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