The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Friday against Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on behalf of foreigners who claim they were held illegally and denied bail even for minor offenses after being flagged by immigration authorities.
British filmmaker Duncan Roy, who said he spent nearly three months in L.A. County jails without a chance to post bail, is one of the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Roy was arrested Nov. 15 in Malibu on suspicion of extortion. He was in the country legally but was identified as a suspected illegal immigrant through a federal program called Secure Communities, which sends the fingerprints of all arrestees through an immigration database.
"It's important that people realize that this could happen to anyone,'' Roy said. "It's not just undocumented immigrants. I'm lucky that I can get out and be heard -- many of the people I met in there can't.''
Sheriff's Department officials rejected Roy's repeated efforts to post $35,000 bail, citing a detention order by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the lawsuit alleges.
The ACLU and other plaintiffs' attorneys contended the bail denials have been a blanket practice by the Sheriff's Department, affecting thousands of people subjected to ICE holds in local jails.
A Baca spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit but told the Los Angeles Times the department does not deny inmates the right to post bail because of ICE holds.
A report by prison expert James Austin cited data from Baca's office indicating that at least 20,000 Los Angeles County inmates, nearly all of them Latino males, were subjected to ICE holds in 2011, The Times reported.
ACLU officials noted that the Sheriff's Department recently sent memos to watch commanders reminding them that inmates subject to ICE holds can post bail.
"We are very pleased LASD has agreed to alter this practice in response to our demand letter, but it never should have been happening in the first place,'' according to Kate Desormeau, staff attorney at the Immigrants' Rights Project of the ACLU.