An undocumented immigrant from Maryland is suing a state police agency whose officers turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after fining him for improper removal of a tree.
José Ricardo Villalta Canales, 31, was helping a relative cut down a dead tree at his home in Rockville on Aug. 7 when he was approached by police from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said attorneys at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Villalta, who had no prior criminal record, did not have the appropriate license to cut down the tree, a violation of state law punishable by a fine of up to $500.
The police officers allegedly took five minutes to fine Villalta $320, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. But they detained him for more than two hours after making a routine check of a national database to see if he was the subject of any outstanding state, federal or local warrants.
The database showed ICE had filed an administrative warrant for deportation, also known as a detainer.
Maryland state agencies are only supposed to act on judicial, or criminal warrants, the Department of Natural Resources said in a recent letter to state lawmakers who had inquired about Villalta’s case.
But the officer acted on the administrative warrant, detaining Villata until federal agents arrived. He was consequently arrested and has remained in ICE detention in Frederick County for more than three months.
His immigration attorney, Vincent Rivas Flores of Konare Law, said there is a pending petition to reopen his immigration case in the Baltimore immigration court, in hopes of preventing his deportation.
“There was absolutely no lawful basis for his detention. There was no warrant for his arrest and no evidence that he had made a criminal offense,” said Emily Gunston, deputy legal director of the lawyer’s committee.