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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich challenges Gov. Jay Inslee over new immigration law

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said on Fox News that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should be arrested for obstruction of justice over state’s immigration policies. (Fox News)

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he won’t follow a new state law that forbids local officials from helping federal agents enforce some immigration laws and said Gov. Jay Inslee, who signed the law last month, should be “arrested for obstruction of justice.”

The sponsor of the law, which passed the Legislature on a mostly partisan vote, said Knezovich seems to be misinterpreting the law. Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, added one recent case he cites as a reason why the law is dangerous has nothing to do with it.

In an interview on Fox News law week, Knezovich, one of the county’s longest serving Republican officials, excoriated Inslee for signing the bill designed partly to support the state economy and “immigrants’ role in the workplace.”

Knezovich said it was setting up Washington as a “sanctuary state” that would keep his officers from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal officials in preventing crime by dangerous people who are in the country illegally.

The law gives immigrants certain employment rights regardless of citizenship status, and requires public schools and health facilities operated by the state are to be accessible regardless of that status. But it also directs state law enforcement not to assist in enforcement of federal registration programs that target residents based on immigration or citizenship status as well as race, religion or nationality.

“The Legislature finds that it is not the primary purpose of state and local law enforcement agencies …to enforce civil federal immigration law,” it says. Law enforcement officers should not ask about a person’s immigration or citizenship status unless there is a connection to an investigation of a violation of state or local criminal law.

A person can’t be arrested or detained solely for determining their immigration status or held on a civil immigration warrant, it says.

Wellman said that’s to make sure that people aren’t asked to produce identification or immigration papers at random.

“What we’re looking to do is to say that the money that is raised by the people of Washington is to keep the people of Washington safe,” Wellman said. “Let federal agents focus on federal enforcement and local people focus on local enforcement.”

But the law also states that nothing prohibits state and local officials from complying with state or federal law, she said, and doesn’t prohibit them from working together on criminal cases or turning over a suspect they have in custody if federal agents have a criminal warrant.

Knezovich said he’s had other people give him different interpretations of the new law and believes it will lead to local and federal law enforcement officials working in “silos” on investigations rather than working together.

“We’re not out there asking people for their immigration status,” Knezovich said in an interview Monday with The Spokesman-Review. It can come up in certain situations, such as a traffic stop when a driver doesn’t have a valid license or gives a false name, which prompts officers to do further checks. But there’s no routine citizenship question.

In his interview with Fox last Friday, Knezovich also pointed to the fatal shooting of a Kittitas County sheriff’s deputy earlier this year by an immigrant who was in the country illegally as a reason the law is flawed.

Deputy Ryan Thompson was killed after stopping Juan Manuel Flores Del Toro, who began shooting in what has been described as a road rage incident. Wellman said the law would have made no difference in the case, because Flores Del Toro entered the country legally on a work visa, overstayed his visa but wasn’t being sought by federal immigration officials.

But if a local law enforcement official had stopped Flores Del Toro and discovered his visa had expired, the new law wouldn’t allow them to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Knezovich countered.

Wellman and Knezovich agree that undocumented immigrants in the community should feel safe in contacting local law enforcement if they witness or are a victim of crime. Wellman says the law is designed to give them that feeling of safety. Knezovich said it perpetuates a false stereotype and “drives a wedge between us and the people.”

When he signed the law, which went into effect immediately on May 21, Inslee hailed the new law as a bar to “mean-spirited policies” that break up families and hurt community safety. He had signed an executive order in 2017 that said state law enforcement officials would not cooperate with civil warrants from federal immigration officials.

“We will not be complicit in the Trump administration’s depraved efforts to break up hard-working immigrant and refugee families,” Inslee said at the bill signing.

Knezovich contended that what’s really behind the law is Inslee and other Washington Democrats’ animus toward Trump. Federal immigration law is the same as it was under President Barack Obama or George W. Bush and his officers are handling it the same, he said.

“Then Trump was elected. It’s their hatred for one guy,” he said, adding that Inslee is running for president.

His officers will continue to contact ICE with questions about a suspect’s immigration status, he said.

Earlier this year, Knezovich criticized as some other county sheriffs who said they weren’t going to enforce Initiative 1639, the new law regarding extended background checks on semiautomatic rifle purchases. Govenrment officials can’t decide which laws they’re going to enforce.

Asked how that was different from his stance on the new state immigration law, Knezovich said it was actually Inslee and legislative Democrats who were deciding not to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

In his interview with The Spokesman-Review, Knezovich repeated his belief that Inslee should be charged with obstruction of justice for signing the law. When informed the sheriff had made that comment in last week’s interview on Fox, Inslee said through a spokeswoman: “I’m going to be in Spokane on Friday, and I fully expect to return to Western Washington after my visit.”

On part of that visit, Inslee and Knezovich will actually be together at an event to discuss mental health policy. Asked if he planned to arrest Inslee for obstruction of justice at that meeting, Knezovich replied: “I doubt it.”