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A judge's gavel.
A courtroom gavel. (Joe Gratz, Flickr)

The Teller County Sheriff’s Office did not violate state law when it agreed to hold inmates on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement even after they posted bond, a judge ruled Wednesday in a closely watched case brought by the ACLU of Colorado that could have broad consequences. 

The lawsuit hinged on the sheriff’s office’s decision to enter into a 287(g) agreement with federal immigration authorities, which lets deputies enforce immigration law in exchange for training. 

Teller County is the only county in Colorado that still has a 287(g) agreement with ICE after the Colorado legislature passed a law in 2019 prohibiting state law enforcement officers from arresting or detaining people on federal immigration charges, which are a civil offense. 

The ACLU filed its lawsuit seeking to block the sheriff’s office from working with federal immigration authorities in 2019, and the case proceeded to trial in January after clearing several legal roadblocks.

But Teller County District Judge Scott Sells ruled Wednesday that the sheriff’s office “has the legal authority to enter into the 287(g) agreement with ICE” and that Colorado law doesn’t prohibit the office from entering into the agreement. 

“The functions performed under the 287(g) agreement by trained and certified Teller County sheriff’s deputies and officers acting as designated immigration officers under the supervision of ICE are lawful and consistent with Colorado law,” Sells found. He reasoned that Teller County deputies are de facto federal officers when enforcing federal immigration law.

Sells said the 287(g) agreement is lawful because it helps “keep and preserve the peace in Teller County.”

“Thus,” he wrote, “the sheriff has the statutory authority to perform the functions it enumerates unless specifically prohibited by another Colorado law.”

Finally, Sells found that it was legal for the Teller County Sheriff’s Office to hold inmates on federal immigration warrants after they posted bond. He noted that 2019 Colorado law prohibits sheriff’s from honoring detainment “requests” from immigration authorities, but that a warrant “is not a request. It is a valid federal warrant.”

The ACLU of Colorado vowed to appeal the ruling. 

“We are disappointed that the trial court upheld the Teller County sheriff’s 287(g) program,” Mark Silverstein, legal director emeritus of the ACLU of Colorado, said in a written statement. “We remain steadfast in our claim that the sheriff’s program of enforcing federal immigration law violates the Colorado Constitution as well as a Colorado statute. We will now take this case to the Colorado Court of Appeals.”

An attorney for Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell, a Republican, didn’t immediately provide comment. Mikesell was reelected in November to his second four-year term as sheriff.

The Teller County ruling may embolden other Colorado sheriffs to enter into 287(g) agreements with ICE. Right now, the Teller County Sheriff’s Office is the only sheriff’s office in Colorado with such an agreement with federal immigration officials.

Legal battles around so-called “immigration detainers” — in which people are held on immigration charges after posting bond on state criminal charges — have been happening across the country for years

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of five Teller County residents.

The Colorado legislature this year is considering House Bill 1100, which would prohibit the state and local governments from entering into an immigration detention agreement. It also would require that any government entity with an existing immigration detention agreement to terminate the deal by Jan. 1, 2024.

The measure also seeks to block the creation of new, privately run immigration detention centers in Colorado.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....