Sheriff talks immigration bill on Fox, local officials divided

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Beaufort County Sheriff Ernie Coleman made a special appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” program on Monday to discuss a pair of hot-button topics — immigration and H.B. 370, a state bill that would require North Carolina sheriffs to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. N.C. Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill last Wednesday.

While Coleman was not available for comment Tuesday, he offered the opinion during his segment that cooperating with ICE was nothing new for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and that checking for warrants and notifying other agencies is essentially standard procedure when an arrest occurs.

“The detention officer, every time, checks or wants and warrants on that person nationwide,” Coleman said. “When that person pops up as wanted, say in Pennsylvania … that agency, whether ICE, which is a law enforcement agency, or a jurisdiction somewhere else, are sent, in layman’s terms, an email. … It is then up to that agency to contact us back.”

Locally, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners weighed in on H.B. 370 in May, soon after the bill passed the N.C. House of Representatives. During the board’s May 6 meeting, Commissioner Hood Richardson introduced a resolution endorsing the bill, but the resolution was voted down 3-4, with Richardson, Stan Deatherage and Gary Brinn voting in favor. Commissioners Frankie Waters, Jerry Evans, Ed Booth and Jerry Langley voted against.

“We don’t want the criminals loose in Beaufort County,” Richardson said during the meeting. “The law that’s in the legislature is intended to make every county in North Carolina a non-sanctuary county, because there are some sheriffs who have come out saying they will have sanctuary counties.”

Concerns voiced by dissenting commissioners included issues with capacity at the Beaufort County Detention Center, possible increased costs of compliance and possibilities of non-criminals being detained solely on the basis of their immigration status during traffic stops.

In the N.C. General Assembly, the bill passed by a margin of 63-51 in the House of Representatives in April and 25-18 in the Senate in June, directly along party lines. Beaufort County’s respective state legislators, as well, were divided on the issue.

N.C. Senator Erica Smith voted against the bill, while N.C. Representative Keith Kidwell voted in favor. Last Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, sending it back to the House, where an override attempt remains a possibility.

“We haven’t spoken about it yet, so that’s still kind of up in the air at this point,” Kidwell said of a potential override. “We’re still working, unfortunately, on the budget. That’s really our main concentration right now.”

Attempts to reach Smith on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

In his veto, Cooper argued the bill is unconstitutional, places additional duties on local law enforcement and would be the only law on the books that could result in a sheriff’s removal from office for a duty violation.

“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina,” Cooper wrote in his veto. “As the former top law enforcement officer of our state, I know that current law allows the state to jail and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status. This bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating sheriffs to do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties. Finally, to elevate their partisan political pandering, the legislature has made a sheriff’s violation of this new immigration duty as the only specifically named duty violation that can result in a sheriff’s removal from office.”

H.B. 370 would require the following statewide:

  • Jail administrators must investigate the legal status of any person charged with a crime, and contact ICE if they are unable to determine the person’s status.
  • Jails must allow ICE officials to interview prisoners in person, by phone or through other electronic means.
  • Prisoners subject to ICE detainers and administrative warrants must be taken before a judicial official and ordered to be held in custody.
  • Unless confinement is required for another legal process, the person will be released 48 hours after the receipt of the detainer or if the detainer is rescinded by ICE.

Further, the bill also contains provisions for removing a sheriff from office should they fail to cooperate with the law, and would add reporting requirements for jailers.