File photo: Denise Civiletti

Some Riverhead officials have recently advocated changing police policy regarding undocumented immigrants. But some of the policy changes they have in mind are not only costly and difficult to implement, but illegal, according to the director of a local civil liberties group.

Last month, three of Riverhead’s five town board members said they believed the Riverhead Police Department should detain someone for questioning at the request of federal immigration agencies, whether a judicial warrant has been issued or not.

Riverhead currently does not detain someone at the request of a federal agency alone. “We’re not in the business of detaining people without a warrant or probable cause,” Supervisor Sean Walter said last month. “If the federal government wants to enforce immigration law, they have to follow the law and get a warrant.”

That has earned Riverhead a spot on an unofficial online list of “sanctuary cities,” which are localities with policies that supposedly shelter undocumented immigrants.

But council members Jodi Giglio, John Dunleavy and George Gabrielsen all believe the town shouldn’t have to wait for a warrant to detain someone at the federal government’s request.

“I think there have been crimes committed and plots that we’ve seen happening in this country where the federal government hasn’t issued warrants for these people,” Giglio said yesterday. “I don’t care who they are or where they came from. We need to hold them and have them questioned.”

According to the director of Suffolk’s chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, however, such a policy could open the town up to civil rights violations.

“Holding someone without probable cause is illegal,” said Amol Sinha, director of Suffolk’s NYCLU chapter. “And if that person turns around and sues the locality for that unlawful detention, the locality would be responsible for the cost and damages of it – not the federal government.”

More and more localities around the country are choosing not to hold people without warrants, Sinha said. “There have been a number of federal court decisions from all over the country that holding someone without probable cause is illegal,” he said. “This is something that’s happening all over the country. It would be unwise for Riverhead to go a different direction.”

Riverhead does not currently have a written policy on detention requests by federal immigration enforcement agencies, but the department’s internal policy, says Police Chief David Hegermiller, is not to honor requests without a warrant

Most localities in New York State do the same. New York State Sheriffs Association advised all sheriffs last year to require a warrant before detaining someone on a federal agency’s request. Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco put a similar official policy in place last September.

Hegermiller said Riverhead is no different than any other police department in New York. “And New York’s not any different from any other state in the Northeast,” he said.

But Giglio, who is also a Republican candidate for town supervisor, believes the policy could put residents in danger and gives the town a reputation for harboring criminals.

“Sanctuary cities are a magnet for criminals,” she said. “If the federal government wants to question these people, we need to hold them.”

Fellow board members Dunleavy and Gabrielsen both told RiverheadLOCAL last month they believe town police should detain immigrants wanted for questioning in the absence of a warrant.

“How can you wait for a warrant when he’s arraigned, and in a week he may be gone?” Dunleavy said.

Gabrielsen even suggested that police detain undocumented immigrants and report them to the federal government independent of a request. “What’s the difference between breaking into a house or breaking into a country illegally?” he said. “It’s a crime. We should be detaining as many as we can hold.”

Giglio also believes that the police department should take a more active role in identifying immigrants who are living in the country without documentation.

“If they get pulled over and they don’t have a driver’s license, and they don’t have any documentation as to whether or not they’re American citizens, we should be coming up with a policy for our police officers to follow,” she said.

Giglio, who if elected supervisor would also be the town police commissioner, said developing such a policy should be left to a committee. “I don’t have any police experience, so I’m not equipped to put a policy in place without input from others,” she said. “But a committee would help us figure out what we can legally do to stop crimes from happening here in Riverhead. We can’t continue to just turn the other way.”

But requesting proof of immigration status during traffic stops, Sinha argued, would entail another violation of civil rights.

“What we’re really talking about is racial profiling,” he said. “And any police practice that’s based on that is illegal and ineffective. You shouldn’t be treating people as suspects simply because of the color of their skin or the country of their birth.”

Police officers demanding proof of immigration status would also erode the trust local authorities have begun building with minority communities, Sinha said.

“We’ve made great strides in recent years to become a more welcoming community,” he said. “We should not be regressing back to a time and a place where immigrants and people of color were fearful of their neighbors and their government.”

He added that it was the federal government’s responsibility, not a local or state government’s, to enforce immigration law.

“You shouldn’t encourage local towns to spend time, money or resources that are already scarce on something that will violate constitutional rights,” Sinha said.

But Giglio believes identifying undocumented immigrants could be tied into stricter enforcement of other laws.

“We shouldn’t be seeking out undocumented immigrants, but if we happen to find out someone is not abiding by the law, we should hold them accountable,” she said. “We need to be paying attention to out-of-state plates that are here. If a car with South Carolina plates is in someone’s driveway for more than 30 days, New York State law says they’re supposed to convert their license plates over. We should be enforcing our laws, and we’re not doing that.”

She added that police officers should work with the town’s code enforcement officers to identify “overcrowded houses,” where residents are being “exploited.”

“People are buying houses here and then they load them up with all these families, making four times of what the taxes are,” Giglio said. “Without enforcement and without staking out what’s going on inside these houses, we’re never going to get a handle on it. We can’t just turn the other way.”

Police officers, she said, should start notifying code enforcement when they find town code violations. “We need to start paying attention to what’s going on in these houses when our police are called there and they see code violations there,” she said. “Our ambulance workers need to be on board, too.”

Sinha, however, said that such a practice would damage the relationship between the immigrant community and police.

“The best way to increase public safety is by ensuring that people trust the law enforcement agencies that serve them, so that people feel comfortable communicating with the police,” Sinha said. “If people feel like they can’t trust the police to report a crime or to serve as a witness because they’re fearful of immigration consequences, that makes the community less safe as a whole.”

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