Around 8 p.m. on a night in December, Maria de Jesus de Pineda was handcuffed and led away from her Worthington home. The Nobles County Sheriff's deputies taking her away to jail said they had a warrant. The violation: She’d failed to meet with her probation officer.
As her three sons watched mom being taken away in her pajamas, de Pineda shook her head in disbelief.
She explained that she’d met with her probation officer that Monday. It didn’t matter. She was still going to jail.
The next day would reveal that de Pineda was telling the truth. The warrant for her arrest had actually been thrown out a month earlier. She was soon released. But to de Pineda, her attorney, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, it seemed like more than just an honest mistake.
“What it appears to be is harassment,” attorney Norm Pentelovitch says.
De Pineda happens to be one of four plaintiffs named in a lawsuit against Nobles County and its sheriff, Kent Wilkening. They all have a few things in common. First, they’re all undocumented immigrants. De Pineda originally fled to the United States from Honduras – with two children under 3 years old -- after gangs tried to recruit her and her brother. (Her brother, unfortunately, had already been killed by the time she escaped.)
But in February 2018, she was arrested for identity theft in Worthington. She’d been using fake documentation in order to get a job. It’s a fairly common offense among people in de Pineda’s situation, Pentelovitch says. “If you meet her, she’s not some kind of criminal,” he says. “She is just somebody here, trying to provide for her family.”
But she still got taken to jail, and her problems were just beginning. Even after her family posted bond, the sheriff’s office kept her locked up for another 17 days because she wasn't a citizen.
Immigration Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, regularly asks local law enforcement to hold inmates they suspect might be in the country illegally, even after they’ve posted bail or served their time. It’s a maneuver commonly called an “ICE hold.”
But while de Pineda was stuck in jail, she missed a court date. So, after ICE released her and she paid yet another bond, she was immediately arrested again and sent back to jail. This is all despite the fact that the courthouse and the jail, Pentelovitch points out, are actually in the same building. She ended up spending a combined total of 26 days behind bars.
In August, de Pineda and the other detainees sued the county. The ACLU and its attorneys are feeling pretty optimistic about how this will go over in court. In October, District Court Judge Gregory Anderson preemptively hit Sheriff Wilkening with a restraining order, ensuring he couldn’t keep anyone else after their sentences were up, whether or not they were wanted by ICE. Attorney General Keith Ellison has also filed a brief in support of the ACLU’s claim that ICE holds are a “violation of Minnesota law.” (Wilkening didn’t respond to interview requests.)
Which brings us to that night in December, when de Pineda found herself in jail yet again.
“You can’t even imagine the psychological damage this has done,” she told the ACLU. She and her kids “live in fear” she could be arrested again – seemingly for no reason.
Pentelovitch says there’s no additional claim in the suit for harassment or retaliation, but he has a hard time believing it’s a coincidence.
“Here we have someone suing the county who also ends up arrested on a warrant no one else would have been arrested for,” he says. This sort of thing “chills trust” in both law enforcement and the “efficacy” of the judicial system.
But as de Pineda told the ACLU, this lawsuit could have broader implications. The more public this becomes, she said, the safer immigrants will be.
“What happened to me, it could happen to hundreds of people here if I don’t say anything.”