HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has banned Montana law enforcement officers from arresting undocumented immigrants on federal civil immigration violations after a Eureka man sued the Lincoln County sheriff for denying him the right to bail himself out of jail.

The ruling came Monday in an opinion written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath that overturned a district court decision.

“This is a major victory for immigrants in Montana,” said Alex Rate, legal director for the ACLU of Montana, in a press release.

Agustin Ramon, a dual citizen of France and Mexico, was arrested in August 2018 after breaking into a home to steal prescription drugs. When Ramon attempted to pay his $25,000 bond to get out of jail, jailers informed Ramon’s bail bondsman that even if bail were paid, the sheriff would continue to jail Ramon, since U.S. Customs and Border Patrol had filed a civil immigration detainer request.

The bondsman then declined to post bail, and Ramon filed a lawsuit against Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short in November 2018, claiming he had been illegally jailed for two months. On the county jail roster next to Ramon’s name, it said “can bond but do not release.” 

In November 2018, District Judge Matthew Cuffe rejected a request by Ramon to prevent Lincoln County from detaining him if he posted bail, and Ramon appealed Cuffe’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.

During oral arguments in January, the sheriff’s defense attorney, Maureen Lennon, with the Montana Association of Counties, argued that Ramon’s detainment was contingent on his original arrest, as he never posted bail, and not a new arrest on behalf of federal immigration officials. Therefore, the ACLU’s evidence was incomplete, she said.

Citing legal precedent, Chief Justice McGrath disagreed, writing in the opinion that “continued detention in response to a different jurisdiction’s request, ‘valid or not,’ constitutes a new arrest.”

“In this case, the immigration detainer and the Detention Center’s actions amounted to an arrest under Montana law,” McGrath wrote.

Delving further into state law, McGrath found that “Montana statutory law does not, either directly or indirectly, authorize the arrest of individuals based solely on a federal civil immigration detainer.”

The court’s six other justices unanimously concurred with McGrath, though Justice Jim Rice specified that the ruling does not mean “that sheriffs are barred from any and all cooperation with federal authorities.”

Short did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling by press time, nor did his predecessor, who headed the sheriff’s department at the time of Ramon’s initial arrest before losing re-election to Short that June.

Though the ruling presents a victory for immigrant rights groups in Montana, it did not prevent Ramon’s deportation to France after he pleaded guilty to burglary in January 2019 after spending 203 days in jail. 

According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, 543 federal civil immigration detainers like the one issued in Ramon’s case have been issued to Montana detention facilities since 2003, with a significant surge in detainers filed during the Trump administration.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.