Immigration group drops suit against Clay Co. officials regarding jail project that could house more ICE detainees

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A lawsuit alleging Clay County officials failed to provide transparency in developing plans for a possible expansion of the Clay County Justice Center in Brazil, which houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, has been voluntarily dismissed.

Mariposa Legal, a program of the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization COMMON Foundation, filed the complaint in December on behalf of an immigrant rights coalition called Communities Not Cages Indiana. The not-for-profit voluntarily moved for dismissal on Jan. 28, and an order dismissing the case was entered on Jan. 31.

The matter was resolved outside of court, according to documents provided by Hannah Cartwright, co-founder and executive director of Mariposa Legal, and court records. Stephen Unger of Bose McKinney & Evans LLP was listed as representing Clay County officials.

In exchange for dropping the lawsuit, county officials offered “in a show of good faith” to consider terms for a final build-operate-transfer agreement for the jail project during a future commissioners meeting. In addition, the commissioners said they would email Mariposa personal notice of that meeting a minimum of 48 hours in advance “even though they would not otherwise be required to do so.”

“This should alleviate concerns that you may have about personally receiving notice before the meeting, but affords you no special rights to a greater notice period than could otherwise be required,” Unger wrote in a letter to Cartwright dated Jan. 25.

The complaint alleged Clay County officials had violated the Indiana Open Door Law and the Access to Public Records Act in order to push through a proposed jail expansion that could allow the county to house more ICE detainees with minimal public accountability. The suit specifically named the Clay County commissioners, County Council and sheriff’s office.

In a request to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit, county officials contended they provided all documents to the National Immigrant Justice Center required by law and also held proper meetings regarding the possible project.

“Moreover, to continue to proceed with your Complaint given the Commissioner’s offer and responses … highlights that proceeding with your lawsuit is not about a real legal dispute under the ODL or APRA, but is instead an effort to use the lawsuit to generate publicity and attempt to besmirch the County to interfere with a public construction project… ,” Unger wrote in the letter requesting dismissal. “… I recognize that you are philosophically opposed to the jail expansion (because of your opposition to ICE detention) and also may disagree with the statutory requirements for public meetings, but that is not a sufficient basis to press a lawsuit that cannot succeed legally.

Further, the voluntary dismissal references a letter by Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, dated Dec. 20, 2021, ruling against the coalition.

In the letter, Britt states, “… I had previously communicated an absence of grounds for filing a complaint. I had determined your public records requests lacked reasonable particularity and the Open Door Law allegations were speculative at best.

“… Toward the end, I began to compile meeting minutes from the County,” Britt continued. “I conducted phone interviews with the county attorney and sheriff. Both provided satisfactory responses regarding governing body meetings. Specifically, the sheriff provided me minutes of the jail committee minutes which were not publicly posted.

“… After piecing together the various meeting minutes — both regularly scheduled and otherwise — and comparing them to your complaint, I still did not identify any gaps in discussions that would lead me to believe any allegations could be substantiated,” Britt wrote.

In communications with Unger, Cartwright was also provided with some of the documents NIJ had requested but not yet obtained.

“This is a slight win for public transparency in that Clay County Commissioners will, at long last, hold a public meeting on their agreement with developers to expand the county jail — a meeting which community members and members of the Communities Not Cages Coalition have been requesting for months,” Cartwright said in a statement emailed to Indiana Lawyer. “(H)owever, why it was necessary for a lawsuit to be filed in order for a small county government to provide the bare minimum in terms of public accountability remains an open question.”

The case of Mariposa Legal v. Clay County Commissioners, Clay County Council, Clay County Sheriffs’ Department, 11C01-2112-MI-000891, had been assigned to Judge Joseph D. Trout in Clay Circuit Court.

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