Florida lawmakers passed a state law banning “sanctuary cities” during their 2019 session knowing the controversial measure would invite lawsuits.
The South Miami City Commission took the first step in obliging that anticipation, unanimously agreeing during a special Tuesday night meeting to hire an attorney to initiate what could be the first legal challenge to Senate Bill 168.
South Miami City Attorney Thomas Pepe said that seven nonprofit organizations have requested to join the city as plaintiffs when the lawsuit is filed.
Pepe and Mayor Philip Stoddard said during Tuesday’s meeting that they are concerned about the city’s potential liabilities under the law, which is spelled out in the resolution the city commission unanimously approved.
It reads: “Various sections of SB 168 are unconstitutional for a number of reasons including vagueness, since it is likely to lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, thereby making it difficult for the City of South Miami's Police Department to know how to comply or how to be able to confirm that they follow federal immigration laws.”
Pepe said by enforcing the law, the city could be sued for detaining immigrants without warrants or other justifications other than they don’t have documentation of citizenship on their person.
“If the city detains someone and there is no warrant, the city could be liable for due process and equal protection kind of claims that could be filed by the person that was detained by the city," Pepe said, noting the new law also “conflicts with federal law about whether a city such as South Miami would be reimbursed for its police force's cooperation with immigration agents.”
Stoddard said the city’s police department fears undocumented residents will not report crimes since the new state law requires them to enforce federal immigration policies.
"Our police are responsible for maintaining the public safety,” he said. “As soon as they are seen as somebody who might turn you in if you called for assistance, they’re no longer trusted and they can no longer do their primary job of keeping all residents safe. It creates divisions."
SB 168 – a legislative priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis – requires local jails and prisons to hold an undocumented immigrant charged or convicted of a crime for 48 hours past their release dates to give federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents time to collect and deport them.
Under the new law, the governor also has the authority to initiate “judicial proceedings” against local officials who do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities, endorse “sanctuary city policies” or implement “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
The bill prohibits local governments from enacting “sanctuary” polices that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
The bill spurred heated debate in committee and floor debates, as well as protests and demonstrates in the capitol and across the state.
Adopted in strictly partisan votes, Democrats claimed the measure was purely political since there has never been a “sanctuary city” in Florida.
South Miami is a 2.3-square-mile city of about 13,000 residents west of Coral Gables in Miami-Dade County.