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PolitiFact: How Gov. Abbott misstated sheriff’s ‘sanctuary’ policy

2 Jun

Gov. Greg Abbott gave a backhanded shoutout (or the back of his hand) to a Democratic sheriff as he signed the Republican-driven proposal intended to keep local communities from shielding unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

The governor explained his support of Senate Bill 4 during a bill signing on Facebook Live: “This law cracks down on policies like the Travis County sheriff who declared that she would not detain known criminals accused of violent crimes. Those policies are sanctuary city policies and won’t be tolerated in Texas. Elected officials and law enforcement agencies, they don’t get to pick and choose which laws they will obey.”

Three days earlier, the referenced sheriff, Sally Hernandez, issued a statement suggesting that, while SB 4 wouldn’t enhance public safety, she’d go along: “While I hate seeing a state law like this come to pass,” Hernandez said, “I have always followed the law and that will not change.”

We previously found False an Abbott claim that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez was refusing to enforce a federal law regarding communication about jailed immigrants. The sheriff’s published policy declares otherwise.

Still, did Hernandez declare that she wouldn’t detain known criminals accused of violent crimes, as Abbott said?

We asked Abbott’s office for the basis of his new claim and didn’t hear back.

You could read the governor to have said that Hernandez, who was sworn in as sheriff in January, put in place rules against keeping convicts accused of violent crimes behind bars — a broad, unsupported charge given that the county continues to prosecute crimes of all kinds.

But in the context of Abbott’s mention of “sanctuary city policies,” he surely was referring to Hernandez’s announced policy, effective Feb. 1, that the county would no longer automatically grant requests by federal authorities to “detain” specified suspects for up to 48 hours so immigration agents could investigate and possibly hasten deportation.

Hernandez said her department would honor such ICE detainer requests only if an inmate was charged with or convicted of capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or human smuggling — or if federal agents obtained a court order or arrest warrant for a suspect. Otherwise, inmates would be able to post bail and be released, no matter their immigration status.

We noticed that the policy leaves wiggle room for the sheriff to hold inmates facing other charges. A portion states the office “reserves the right to exercise discretion in any individual case to ensure that justice is served.”

When we asked the sheriff’s office about Abbott’s claim, spokeswoman Kristen Dark said by email that no inmates placed in the Travis County Jail “will be released without making bond or having his or her charges disposed by a judge.” Abbott’s description of the sheriff’s detainer policy, Dark wrote, wasn’t accurate because the policy provides for detainers to be granted automatically for several violent crimes and also gives the office discretion to “ensure that justice is served.”

Dark emailed us a spreadsheet, covering sheriff’s department decisions from March 1 through May 5. Over the two-plus months, according to the sheet, ICE detainer requests were approved by the department for about 200 individuals charged with crimes, with many individuals listed as remaining in jail. Charges filed against the detainer-approved individuals include sexual abuse of a child, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault and driving while intoxicated, according to the sheet.

On the flip side, the sheet lists about 90 people for whom the office denied detainer requests. Many of the people were arrested for allegedly driving while intoxicated or possessing small amounts of marijuana, neither of which would necessarily signal a violent crime. We counted nine individuals among the 90 who were accused of domestic violence.

Our ruling:

Abbott said that Hernandez “declared that she would not detain known criminals accused of violent crimes.”

That’s a distortion of Hernandez’s statements and her announced policy. The sheriff made it clear she wouldn’t automatically honor all requests to hold suspects for ICE. But the policy specifies several violent crimes for which the sheriff’s department directly grants the hold requests and it reserves the office’s right to exercise discretion in the interests of justice.

Abbott, a seasoned judge and former state attorney general, should know better. We find this claim incorrect and ridiculous. Pants on Fire