By Don Debenedictus
SANTA ANA — California’s new “sanctuary” law restricting police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities violates the state constitution and cannot be enforced against the state’s 121 charter cities, an Orange County judge ruled Thursday afternoon.
Superior Court Judge James L. Crandall said the California Values Act, which took effect on Jan. 1 this year, is “an unconstitutional invasion into the rights of the city” to run its own police force and jail in accordance with its own ordinances and charter.
The law was intended to protect undocumented immigrants from some of President Donald Trump’s strict immigration policies.
Senate Bill 54 generally prohibits state, local and university police from spending money and resources for immigration purposes or making arrests based on civil immigration warrants.
Crandall granted a writ of mandate that stops the state from enforcing the act against the City of Huntington Beach, which brought suit in April.
But the ruling effectively applies to all of California’s charter cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, according to Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael E. Gates.
“It’s amazing. I’m thrilled,” Gates said of the ruling, which came after a nearly two-hour hearing.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 54 last October, after late amendments were added allowing local law enforcement agencies to hold for federal immigration authorities people who have been convicted of violent crimes or some other felonies, including drug possession. The amendments also allow immigration officers to interview people in jails, and it exempts the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from the act’s restrictions.
Soon after the act took effect, the Trump administration and many local governments across California attacked it.
In March, the Department of Justice sought to prevent the law from being enforced, but a federal judge in Sacramento rejected the move.
Separately, the administration also attempted to withhold federal funds from cities that declared themselves sanctuary cities, but several judges across the country ruled the government did not have the authority to do so. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that position for several cities in California.
Other cities and the Orange County passed resolutions supporting the federal government’s March lawsuit or moved to join it.
The Orange County city of Los Alamitos enacted an ordinance in April declaring itself exempt from the sanctuary act, which drew a lawsuit from a community group represented by the ACLU.
Huntington Beach took the unusual step of suing the state directly, claiming the act infringed on its rights under the “municipal affairs doctrine” laid out in article XI, section 5, of the California Constitution. The section spells out the rights and powers of cities that adopt governing charters.
According to subsection 5(a), a city’s charter “shall supersede all laws inconsistent therewith” regarding “municipal affairs.” Subsection 5(b) says that a charter city may provide for “the constitution, regulation, and government of the city police force,” among other listed powers.
In its lawsuit against California, Huntington Beach contended the sanctuary act’s mandates on how city police may “investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes” violates subsection 5(b) and the municipal affairs doctrine.
During the Thursday hearing, Gates argued that the sanctuary act “presents an unprecedented threat” to municipal authority. “It’s commandeering. It’s an intrusion,” he said.
Representing the state, Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Eisenberg said that merely showing an apparent conflict between the act and one element of subsection 5(b) is not enough. “First, you have to figure out if you have a municipal affair” before invoking the municipal affairs doctrine.
That requires a four-step analysis, he said, including considering whether the state has an overriding interest in the subject of the law being challenged. Eisenberg said Huntington Beach’s challenge of the sanctuary act failed all four steps.
Judge Crandall called the case one of first impression. Although he discussed several issues at length with the attorneys — and praised both sides’ briefs — he never seemed swayed by the state’s arguments.
He signaled his ruling in a monologue at the beginning of the hearing, when he asked: “Can the state prohibit a city from complying with its own ordinances and charter?
“Laws are protections for the weak against the strong, for the little guy against the big guy,” the judge said.
He held that finding that a state law impinges on a charter city’s powers under subsection 5(b) is enough to void the state law.
He also faulted the sanctuary law for effectively blocking charter cities from regulating their affairs according to their own needs and “community knowledge.”
“My problem is the state’s saying one size fits all just means it’s not going to fit anybody,” Crandall said.
He said he expects the case to be appealed. He set a trial date on contract issues raised by the city’s lawsuit for next year.