Immigrant files $5M lawsuit against Howard County over ICE detention

By Madeleine O’Neill |

A Salvadoran man living in Maryland is suing Howard County over a 2020 arrest for minor traffic violations that led to his transfer into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

William Garcia Trejo filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt alleging that Howard County violated his constitutional rights by holding him without legal justification.

“Mr. Trejo was illegally turned over to ICE by Howard County, which had a long record of mistreating immigrant detainees,” said Trejo’s lawyer, Timothy Maloney.

The complaint seeks a judgment of $5 million and alleges that Howard County engaged in a pattern and practice of violating detainees’ constitutional rights by coordinating with ICE.

The county for years had a lucrative contract with ICE to detain noncitizens who were facing removal from the United States. Howard County Council passed legislation to end the contract in 2020, soon after Trejo’s arrest, but County Executive Calvin Ball vetoed the bill. Ball later ended the contract in 2021.

The General Assembly also passed the Dignity Not Detention Act, which prohibited Maryland’s local jurisdictions from entering into immigration detention agreements.

Maloney said Trejo’s experience became a “rallying point” for reform in Maryland. Trejo testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last year and has been championed by CASA, an immigrant advocacy organization.

A Maryland State Police trooper pulled over Trejo on Sept. 27, 2020, for talking on his cellphone while he was driving. The officer arrested Trejo because he had outstanding citations for driving without a valid license and expired registration and had failed to appear in court to handle the citations, according to the complaint.

A district court judge set Trejo’s bond at $400, which Trejo’s mother posted the same day, but Trejo was not released. Instead, he was held over night at the Howard County Detention Center and then transferred into the custody of ICE, even though the agency had not issued a detainer or an administrative warrant for Trejo, according to the complaint.

Trejo was held at an ICE facility in Baltimore before being released to home monitoring, the complaint claims. He was required to wear a GPS monitor for one year, to provide routine reports to ICE and prohibited from leaving the Washington, D.C., metro area. Trejo’s GPS monitor was removed in October 2021, but he is still required to report his whereabouts to ICE each week, according to the complaint.

Trejo immigrated to the U.S. on a work visa in 2012 and has a young daughter who is an American citizen.

Shortly after Trejo’s arrest, Ball announced that the Howard County detention facility would only hold immigration detainees who were convicted of a crime of violence. Ball said in October 2020 that Trejo’s treatment was a “mistake” and “should not have occurred.”

Trejo’s lawsuit claims the detention violated his right against unlawful search and seizure and was part of an unconstitutional pattern and practice by Howard County. It also claims there is “nothing preventing” the county from continuing to turn over detainees to ICE, despite the state law prohibiting contracts with the agency.

“The fight isn’t over,” Maloney said, “because there’s nothing to stop Howard County or any other jurisdiction from simply picking up the phone and taking someone (to ICE custody) without probable cause.

“The people who engaged in the unlawful conduct are still running the county and the detention center,” he said.

A request for comment left with the Howard County Office of Public Information was not returned Tuesday.

The case is docketed at Trejo v. Howard County, Maryland et al, 8:22-cv-01066.

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