The ACLU of Virginia has offered guidance to local law enforcement agencies in the areas of federal immigration law enforcement and placement of “In God We Trust” decals on official vehicles.

In a Thursday letter to the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Virginia Association of Counties, and the Virginia Municipal League, ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga warned that local law enforcement agencies that cooperate with federal immigration enforcement risk making immigrant communities less safe and exposing themselves to the possibility of lawsuits.

“To effectively protect public safety, local law enforcement needs cooperation from local communities,” the letter states. “Local residents serve as witnesses, report crime, and otherwise assist law enforcement. The foundation for this cooperation can often be destroyed when local police are viewed as an extension of the immigration system.”

Local law enforcement is under no legal obligation to cooperate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainers that seek to detain people for up to 48 hours after they would otherwise be released, and actually open themselves to lawsuits if they do so.

“These detainers are typically issued without a judicial warrant supported by probable cause,” the letter states. “Federal courts around the nation have held local law enforcement agencies liable for unconstitutional detentions under ICE detainers.”

In a separate letter to the same organizations sent on March 3, the ACLU-VA urged local law enforcement agencies against including religious messages on state, city or county-owned vehicles or official business cards.

“Because law enforcement officials carry with them the threat of force at all times, they must be exceedingly cautious when it comes to matters of faith in order to avoid actual or perceived religious coercion,” the letter states.

Officers of local law enforcement agencies similarly “may not proselytize employees, arrestees, witnesses, community members or anyone else they come into contact with while carrying out their official duties.”
Several local police and sheriff’s departments in Virginia have in recent months and years applied decals with the national motto, “In God We Trust.” In most cases, the decals are funded by a private entity, usually a church, to avoid criticism about misuse of tax dollars. Regardless, the practice raises serious questions about potential employment discrimination and disparities in how people with different beliefs might be policed.

In both letters, the ACLU-VA urged each agency to apprise its members of these issues, and offered to serve as a resource for local law enforcement agencies seeking to adopt sound policies.