BOSTON — The highest state court in Massachusetts ruled on Monday that court officers do not have the authority, under state law, to hold people in custody based solely on the requests from federal immigration authorities known as civil detainers.
The ruling, which came amid a continuing clash between the Trump administration and some cities and states over immigration enforcement, was immediately claimed as a victory by the state attorney general’s office and immigration advocates. They maintained that it applied to a wide range of law enforcement officials in Massachusetts.
“Anybody who has the ability to arrest a person will be bound by this decision,” said Laura Rótolo, staff counsel and community advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. She said the decision was the first ruling by a state’s high court on the question of whether state or local authorities can detain individuals based only on a request by federal immigration authorities.
Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, called the ruling “a rejection of anti-immigrant policies that have stoked fear in communities across the country.”
As they began to review the ruling, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency moved quickly to denounce it. “While ICE is currently reviewing this decision to determine next steps, this ruling weakens local law enforcement agencies’ ability to protect their communities,” C.M. Cronen, the field office director for ICE in Boston, said in a statement.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the ruling, but pointed to a passage in a speech Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave last week in Philadelphia in which he claimed sanctuary cities are making the country less safe.
Experts said the ruling could be another local setback for federal immigration authorities, who issue civil detainers to request that local authorities keep a person in custody for a day or two longer than they normally would.
“It reduces the leverage of ICE in asking local and state cops to honor detainers,” said Muzaffar Chishti, of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. Mr. Chishti added, “It also gives an argument for localities in this case who are reluctant to honor detainers for a variety of reasons, that gives them additional legal basis to say no.”
Mr. Chishti said a number of federal courts have already ruled that detainer requests are not binding for state and local officials. California and Connecticut have statewide laws limiting individuals who can be held at ICE’s request.
But Mr. Chishti, as well as the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, said Monday’s ruling by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court appears to be the first time a state’s high court has limited compliance with civil detainers based on a reading of state law.
The case revolved around Sreynuon Lunn, who was charged with robbery last fall before the case was dismissed in February. The authorities had already issued a civil immigration detainer against Mr. Lunn, and he was held — apparently in the courthouse — for hours after his case was dismissed and then taken into custody by immigration authorities.
In the decision, the court ruled that detaining someone in such a way was tantamount to arresting them, and that state law “provides no authority” under common or statutory law for court officers to make such an arrest.
“No party or amicus has identified a single Massachusetts statute that authorizes a Massachusetts police officer or court officer, directly or indirectly, to arrest in the circumstances here, based on a federal civil immigration detainer,” the ruling said. It added that the state legislature could pass such a law that would do so.
Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, who has been outspoken in his denunciation of undocumented immigrants and those who protect them, said he was working with three Republican state lawmakers to draft legislation that would do just that.
“It will make the Commonwealth safer if we can get this bill passed by the legislature, which authorizes court officers and law enforcement officers to honor ICE detainers,” Sheriff Hodgson said.