A ruling from the Texas attorney general’s office has just made it more difficult to access information about the kinds of crimes undocumented immigrants have committed in Dallas County — and whether local officials turned those offenders over to federal authorities.
In a ruling on Friday, the attorney general’s office determined that because the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department’s booking system is maintained for use by the court system, it is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
The ruling was in response to a request from The Texas Tribune for booking information on all “non-U.S. citizens” placed in the Dallas County jail since 2007. The Sheriff’s Department did not provide the booking information to the Tribune. Instead, it asked Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to weigh in on the matter, arguing that booking records are maintained for the court system, not the jail itself.
“Based on your representations, we conclude the submitted information is information collected, assembled, or maintained by or for the judiciary,” Joseph Keeney, an assistant attorney general, wrote in response to the sheriff’s request. “Thus the submitted information is not subject to the Act and need not be released under the Act.”
Joseph Larsen, an attorney who sits on the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation’s board of directors, argued that jail booking records are clearly not part of the court system.
“This is truly stunning. This is a database admittedly maintained by the sheriff’s office,” he said. “These sorts of rulings happen because the AG, who cannot decide issues of fact, must accept a governmental body’s factual assertions as true.”
Asked Monday night by the Star-Telegram whether the ruling could apply to the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, Larsen said the ruling was specific to the Dallas County request.
However, he said, it is “a big, flashing, red warning.”
“If it works in one jurisdiction, they will all start making that argument to the attorney general,” Larsen said. “It isn’t binding, but that doesn’t mean it’s not repeatable.”
Larsen said law enforcement officials shouldn’t be able to withhold basic information on inmates.
“Every sheriff’s office in the state could probably make a claim similar, and once you start that on booking information, what else are you going to claim?” Larsen told the Star-Telegram.
The ruling comes just weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott criticized Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez for what he saw as lenient enforcement of federal immigration policies when it comes to holding undocumented immigrants with criminal records for federal authorities.
A new policy put in place a year ago by the Homeland Security Department, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, asks county sheriffs to hold undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours to give federal authorities time to take them into custody. Those hold requests are called “detainers.”
Valdez told The Dallas Morning News last month that immigrants arrested for minor offenses would be freed if their release time came before the 48-hour federal detainer window expired.
In response, Abbott threatened to take grant money away from any sheriff’s departments that do not comply with federal detainer orders.
Valdez’s request for attorney general intervention in response to the Tribune’s question also pointed to an open records ruling made in 2014 when Abbott was attorney general. That ruling also determined that the booking system used by the sheriff’s office could be kept secret because it was was used by the court system.
Staff writer Monica S. Nagy contributed to this report.