Fact check: Did California’s sanctuary law protect a suspected cop killer?

California’s “sanctuary state” law does not appear to have helped the immigrant accused of killing a San Joaquin Valley police officer last week, despite a sheriff’s claim that immigrant-friendly policies protected the suspected shooter.

Paulo Virgen Mendoza, also known as Gustavo Perez Arriaga, has been charged with murder in connection with the fatal shooting of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh. Virgen is an immigrant living in the country illegally.

“This is a criminal illegal alien with prior criminal activity that should have been reported to ICE,” Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said last week. “Law enforcement was prohibited because of sanctuary laws and that led to the encounter with (Cpl.) Singh… the outcome could have been different if law enforcement wasn’t restricted.”

California has several laws that limit local law enforcement cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Christianson has pointed to two — SB 54 and the Trust Act — as relevant in the case, but it’s not clear how they might have applied to Virgen.

SB 54, California’s so-called “sanctuary state” law, prohibits police from targeting people based solely on their immigration status and limits what they can tell federal immigration authorities about people in their custody. It builds on the Trust Act of 2013, which prevents police from detaining people at ICE’s request if they would otherwise be released.

Both laws contain exemptions for people charged with or suspected of serious or violent crimes.

Virgen had at least two prior arrests in the Madera area in 2011 and 2014 on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Under a federal policy known as Secure Communities, local law enforcement would have shared Virgen’s fingerprints with the federal government. The federal government could have used the information to determine his immigration status, said UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson, an immigration law expert.

Had ICE issued a a formal request that police keep Virgen in custody to give federal authorities time to arrest him, local officials may have been prohibited from complying in 2014 under the Trust Act. But there’s no evidence ICE issued a detainer for Virgen then.

“I do not see how ‘sanctuary’ laws can be blamed for this tragedy,” Johnson said in an email. Johnson said ICE likely didn’t try to arrest Virgen in 2014 because the crimes he was charged with weren’t serious enough.

ICE placed a hold on Virgen following the shooting last week. An ICE spokeswoman said initial reviews show this is ICE’s first encounter with him.

SB 54 expanded the prohibitions on police cooperation with federal immigration authorities, including by limiting when local law enforcement can tell federal authorities when a person will be released from jail. But the policy didn’t take effect until 2018 and so wouldn’t have applied during Virgen’s previous arrests.

Christianson didn’t answer questions about what parts of the laws prevented law enforcement from turning Virgen over to ICE previously, as he had asserted. In an email, he simply pointed to the 2013 Trust Act as one of California’s “sanctuary” policies limiting police cooperation with ICE.

President Donald Trump and ICE have joined Christianson in calling for tougher immigration laws in light of the shooting.

“There is right now a full scale manhunt going on in California for an illegal immigrant accused of shooting and killing a police officer during a traffic stop,” Trump tweeted while police searched for Virgen last week. “Time to get tough on Border Security. Build the Wall!”

In a statement, ICE criticized California’s sanctuary laws for “restricting law enforcement cooperation and allowing public safety threats back into the community to reoffend.”

Jon Rodney, spokesman for the California Immigrant Policy Center, said the criticisms of California’s sanctuary policies are inappropriate.

“It’s important that the awful acts that one person is accused of not be used to demonize whole communities,” he said. “The president along with ICE and the sheriff are using this terrible tragedy to scapegoat immigrants.”

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