Ramon Torres

Ascension Parish sheriff's deputies held a Baton Rouge man of Hispanic descent for four days after a judge ordered him released on a misdemeanor drunken driving count last year while authorities checked his immigration status, even though they already possessed documents showing the suspect was a U.S. citizen.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that Ramon Torres was the victim of a sheriff's department policy that targets Hispanics. The group claims deputies held Torres without cause, in violation of his rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Torres, 31, was born in Honduras and entered the United States with his family as a young child. The lawsuit says he became a naturalized U.S. citizen Feb. 25, 2009.

A state district judge had ordered Torres' released on his own recognizance on Sept. 1, 2018, a day after state troopers had arrested him on suspicion of first-offense drunken driving. Although one of Torres' co-workers produced Torres' U.S. certificate of naturalization, his Social Security card, his Honduran birth certificate and his U.S. passport last Sept. 1, deputies didn't release him until Sept. 4.

The ACLU lawsuit claims deputies had no basis to suspect that Torres was not a U.S. citizen after receiving the documentation, and also notes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents never requested that Torres be held. 

“Ramon Torres was held in jail for four days simply because he has brown skin and a Latino name,” said Katie Schwartzmann, the ACLU of Louisiana's legal director. “This is racial profiling, which is unconstitutional and deeply harmful to our communities. … Locking people up based on race or ethnicity is antithetical to our most cherished American values.”

The lawsuit asks a federal court in Baton Rouge to declare the Sheriff’s Office's actions unconstitutional and to award Torres damages.

Interim Sheriff Bobby Webre said his agency had not yet been served with the lawsuit but vowed "a rigorous defense" of his agency's work. The Sheriff's Office would not say whether it has a policy of holding people for a longer period of time if deputies suspect they are not in the country legally. 

Jail records maintained online show that Torres was held on a "detainer" as an out-of-state fugitive until it was lifted Sept. 4, 2018, or four days after Torres was initially picked up. An ICE spokesman for Louisiana, Bryan Cox, said Wednesday the agency had not issued a detainer for Torres.

Webre, who is running to be sheriff, said at a candidate forum last week that while Ascension Parish does not have a formal agreement with ICE in which deputies check the citizenship status of people booked into jail, the agency has long had a strong relationship with ICE.

"We always work with ICE and contact ICE whenever there is an immigrant arrest to see if they fall on that list," Webre told about 75 people at the Ascension Republican Women forum in Gonzales.

He said immigrants without legal status in the country and also accused of felonies remain in the parish, but those facing misdemeanors will be picked up and taken to a federal detention facility in Oakdale to have their immigration status adjudicated.

"So I've done that for many, many years. We've got a great relationship with ICE," he said.

Webre's comments did not specify who he was describing as an immigrant, but, in his preface to those comments, the sheriff noted that the parish has had an increasing number of Hispanic immigrants moving to the parish for work and, as a result of those greater population numbers, they are also showing up more at the parish jail.

Torres' lawsuit names as defendants Webre; Paul Hall, the current jail warden; David Dykes, the jail warden at the time of the arrest; and 11 other unnamed jail staff or supervisors.

According to the federal complaint, the district court order directing the parish jail to release Torres with no bail requirement is part of a court policy of releasing nonviolent offenders, the lawsuit alleges. 

At the time of that bail ruling, sheriff's deputies already had in their possession Torres' Louisiana driver's license and an Alliance Safety Council passport, which identifies those who have cleared background screening ahead of work in certain industries. Both require proof of U.S. citizenship, the lawsuit claims.

Hours after the judge's order and with Torres still in jail on the afternoon of Sept. 1, 2018, Cameron Moore, Torres' co-worker, produced additional documents for deputies, including Torres' U.S. passport and U.S. citizenship documents, the lawsuit alleges.

But, early on the morning of Sept. 2, even after Moore had supplied the documents, the Sheriff's Office placed the "out of state fugitive" hold on Torres, the lawsuit alleges. 

The lawsuit alleges that Moore talked to an unidentified sheriff's supervisor who explained that Torres wasn't being released because the sheriff's policy is to check with ICE when deputies suspect someone is not in the country legally.

"And the APSO then waits to release that individual once he or she has been 'cleared' by ICE," the lawsuit alleges.

Torres was able to leave jail after a lawyer went to court to seek his release, the lawsuit says. 

Torres said that, when he was leaving the parish jail last Sept. 4, a female sheriff's administrator explained the delay, the lawsuit claims.

"Administrator Jane Doe responded to Mr. Torres that APSO contacts ICE pertaining to all Latino arrestees, resulting in 'holds' that delay their release," the lawsuit alleges.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.