STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A court case may offer some insight into just how much local authorities can assist in enforcing federal immigration law. The case is in Massachusetts. The state's highest court hears it today. And it involves a man held by a local sheriff and handed over to federal immigration authorities. This is just what the Trump administration wants many cities and counties to do. But the question before the court today is whether they legally can assist in that way. NPR's Tovia Smith is covering the case. She's on the line. Hi, Tovia.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the case at issue here?
SMITH: Well, it started with an unauthorized immigrant who was arrested on robbery charges that were later dropped. And at that point, he would have been free to walk out the courthouse front door. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials asked the local sheriff to hold him until ICE officials could get there and take him into federal custody. And his lawyer tried but failed to block that. And as you say, he was held and taken into ICE custody. So for him, it's a moot question.
But Massachusetts' high court agreed to hear the case anyway, saying it's a recurring and an important issue. And, indeed, it's one we're seeing coming to a head across the country as communities from Vermont to California are refusing to honor these detainer requests.
INSKEEP: OK, detainer requests. Just so I understand what's going on here, these are people who - whatever charges there may have been against them, they've been dropped, or maybe there's no charge ever filed against them. But federal authorities think they may be in violation of the law. And they ask local authorities to hold them. I guess the question is can they force them to be held? Is that the question here?
SMITH: The answer is no, they can't. Even the federal government agrees it can't force locals to do this. It's a request, not a command. But the question being decided here is whether local officials even can if they want to. The argument is they don't have the authority to make immigration arrests and that holding a person like in this case where there were no longer criminal charges would basically be an illegal arrest without probable cause. And that would violate both the Massachusetts and the U.S. Constitutions. And it would expose communities to costly lawsuits.
INSKEEP: Is the federal government weighing in on this state court case?
SMITH: Yes. The Department of Justice filed a brief. Much of it focuses on arguments like, well, this is the way it's always been done, and public safety depends on the federal government getting local help. The government also argues that probable cause requirements don't apply to immigration detentions 'cause they're civil proceedings. And anyway, they argue, probable cause is kind of baked in to detainer requests. They say that locals can just kind of trust kind of officer to officer that the feds have good reason or they wouldn't be asking.
INSKEEP: Oh, probable cause because that's the idea that an authority can hold you without a formal criminal charge as if they have probable cause to think that you've committed a crime. That's what the feds are relying on here.
SMITH: Correct. And it's worth noting that the government also says that from now on, all detainer requests will be accompanied by a warrant. But that's an administrative warrant, not a judicial one. And attorneys on the other side say it doesn't really change anything.
INSKEEP: Could this state court ruling have national implications?
SMITH: It only affects Massachusetts legally, but it might influence others. And meantime, we have seen the Trump administration really ratcheting up the political pressure on local communities, publishing lists of who's not cooperating, threatening to withhold federal funding from those who don't. So really, this is just one skirmish in the larger fight. And it may be the beginning of a long windy path to the U.S. Supreme Court.
INSKEEP: Tovia, thanks.
SMITH: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tovia Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.