Drug case puts Rhode Island, ICE at odds
Nov. 13--PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The Adult Correctional Institutions released a man who allegedly went on to become the ringleader of a multi-state drug ring dealing in cocaine and fentanyl, despite a request by federal immigration authorities that they get the opportunity to take him into custody.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Rhode Island on Oct. 30 announced the dismantling of a well-entrenched drug ring that authorities say supplied cocaine and the potentially deadly painkiller fentanyl throughout New England. The months-long investigation netted the arrests of 27 people -- including Ramon Delossantos, 25, of Cumberland, who is accused of being the kingpin.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement had placed a detainer on Delossantos following his arrest by Providence police on a firearms charge in 2014, but he was released from the ACI upon completion of his sentence in May 2016 and never reported to probation.
ICE lodges a detainer when it is seeking custody of an alien for alleged violations of civil immigration laws. It serves as a request that the ACI give agents notice about a pending release, and hold the person for up to 48 hours to allow ICE to take custody.
"We believed he had violated federal immigration law," Shawn Neudauer, ICE spokesman for New England, said of Delossantos. "It was not honored."
A Dominican Republic national, Delossantos entered the United States legally in 2011 and overstayed, according to ICE.
The decision to release Delossantos, a repeat drug offender in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, puts a spotlight on a policy enacted by then Gov. Lincoln Chafee requiring that the state Department of Corrections only honor a detainer when it is accompanied by a judicial order of deportation or removal from the United States.
That remains the policy of current Gov. Gina Raimondo's administration, spokesman David Ortiz said.
The policy was developed in response to a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Providence resident Ada Morales. A native of Guatemala who became a U.S. citizen in 1995, Morales sued the state after she was held for several days in 2009 on an immigration detainer, even though she is a U.S. citizen. U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell Jr. ruled that immigration officials had unlawfully detained Morales as a "deportable alien" in violation of her constitutional rights.
It's that ruling that binds the Department of Corrections, spokesman J.R. Ventura said.
"ICE is aware that a probable-cause determination is necessary for RIDOC to honor immigration detainers, which occurs only after a hearing on the matter is held," he said. "Federal Court Judge McConnell directed the Department of Corrections in the Ada Morales case to ensure that the constitutional rights of people in our custody are protected. This policy protects those rights."
Ventura continued: "The federal court also ruled that ICE has issued unlawful detainers in the past, and it's been the policy since the ruling to require a warrant to honor an ICE detainer. The RIDOC is a public safety state agency and must abide by the U.S. Constitution and federal law."
Neudauer insists that requiring a judicial warrant is in essence putting the cart before the horse, and that federal law empowers ICE to bring detainers as well as administrative warrants. Federal judges do not have the authority to issue warrants of arrest for civil violations of immigration laws, he said.
"Detainers and administrative arrest warrants are legally valid documents that authorized immigration officers have the legal authority to issue, in accordance with the lawful framework established by Congress for the enforcement of immigration violations," Neudauer said.
He added that, as of May, President Donald Trump's administration is requiring that all ICE detainers filed by the agency be accompanied by warrants of arrest or warrants of removal/deportation, showing probable cause of removability based on federal law. ICE only places detainers on those individuals for whom probable cause of removability exists, as was the case with Delossantos, he said.
"When a law-enforcement agency chooses not to cooperate with ICE and honor our detainer, they put public safety at risk," Neudauer said. In addition, it wastes resources by forcing ICE agents to find the people who have been released, he said.
Still, he said, ICE seeks to "build cooperative, respectful relationships with our law-enforcement partners."
Spencer Amdur, a staff lawyer with the ACLU immigration project, said the state and local agencies adopt policies like Rhode Island's to avoid liability and lawsuits.
"Even if ICE says they have probable cause, they could be wrong. They can't automatically rely on what ICE says," Amdur said.
"The effect of the policy is to say, we the jail, are not going to be in the business of making immigration arrests," he said.
There are other ways, too, for ICE to get a hold of people such as Delossantos, he said. "If ICE thinks a person is a super high priority, they should mobilize their own resources. They shouldn't be asking the local jail to foot the bill," Amdur said.
Regarding Delossantos, Amdur said, "It sounds like he must have sort of slipped off their radar."
In 2012, Delossantos was twice convicted in Massachusetts on drug charges, according to authorities.
On Dec. 22, 2013, Delossantos fled from Providence police after they stopped the Ford F-150 he was driving on Broad Street at 3:35 a.m. for running a stop sign and spotted a 9mm handgun inside, the police said. Sgt. David Allen spotted him weeks later and arrested him on a charge of carrying a pistol without a license. At the time, he was carrying three IDs and four cellphones, court records show. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison, with one to serve.
In August 2014, Delossantos was charged with possession with intent to deliver heroin after officers saw him engaging in a drug deal on Broad Street. The officers seized $3,000 from him and noted in their report that he was wearing an ICE home-confinement bracelet.
The issue hits hard for Terry Gorman, president of Rhode Island for Immigration Law Enforcement, who lost his granddaughter to a fentanyl overdose. In 2016, 336 Rhode Islanders died from an overdose, with 195 of those deaths involving fentanyl.
"I would like to know how many of the 336 deaths is attributable to this ring. I would like to know the [immigration] status of the 26 other people," Gorman said, adding, "I think he should have been deported when he was arrested in Massachusetts."
Jim Martin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said federal authorities are in the process of reviewing the status of the others who were arrested.