AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage and Maine’s 16 county sheriffs met in a closed-door session Monday in an attempt to settle a dispute over holding suspects for federal immigration officials.

Though the issue wasn’t resolved, the sheriffs said it was a “productive” meeting that helped both sides clarify areas of contention.

The governor had told the sheriffs in September that he would use his constitutional power to remove them from office if they would not hold suspects – even if they didn’t have warrants – for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. LePage took that step after the sheriffs in Cumberland and York counties said they would not hold suspects for federal immigration officials without warrants.

In a letter sent to all 16 counties, LePage invoked his statutory authority to direct sheriffs in law enforcement matters, and pointed to a 2011 executive order directing all employees and officials of the state of Maine to cooperate with federal immigration officials, except when limited by the law or the state and U.S. constitutions.

York County Sheriff William King and Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce pushed back against the governor’s order, saying it would put county taxpayers at risk of litigation because holding a suspect without a warrant amounted to violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

“Really, what I’ve been ordered to do is violate the law, violate the Constitution,” Joyce said last month. King and other sheriffs echoed Joyce’s concerns.

On Monday, King and Joyce characterized the meeting with LePage as “productive” and said they believed they had made progress toward an agreement that either would lead to a new state law or better documentation from ICE officials when the federal agency asks sheriffs to detain a prisoner who already had served his time or otherwise satisfied the conditions set forth by a judge.

“We had a real meaningful exchange,” King said. “I’m just very, very optimistic.”

King said the sheriffs and LePage did not fully resolve all the concerns around detention of prisoners for federal immigration officials or LePage’s threat to remove sheriffs from office, but said they did manage to lay out the concerns on both sides.

“I don’t know if it’s resolved it, but I think once we talked we kind of clarified the issues, I think that’s what needed to be done was the clarification,” he said.

King said sheriffs always would call ICE when a county jail was holding an undocumented immigrant who was subject to an ICE detainer. “We would always do that, so we are actually complying with what he wanted us to do, we are cooperating with federal immigration authorities,” King said.

Joyce said among the solutions that LePage mentioned was the possibility of seeking state legislation that would “indemnify” sheriffs from being sued for violating the rights of a prisoner they held for the federal government without a warrant.

Joyce said any state law that could help couldn’t be in place until at least 2018.

The governor also suggested putting more pressure on immigration officials to ensure they had warrants to hold undocumented immigrants.

King didn’t want to discuss LePage’s letter to sheriffs, noting, “that was still on the table, but I don’t really want to get into that, it was a very healthy and productive conversation today.”

Joyce confirmed that LePage had not withdrawn any of his earlier demands, but also said the meeting was useful in opening up lines of communication.

“I explained where I arrived at my decision and some of the issues around there,” Joyce said. “I think it was a productive meeting.”

Joyce said he has continued to work with ICE to overcome his concerns about immigration detainers.

“It isn’t resolved, but I think we can get to a place where they can provide me with the documentation that will indemnify the county and the taxpayers,” Joyce said. “But it’s still a work in progress. …

“My job is to help ICE out, but also to protect the citizens of Cumberland County, that’s first and foremost.”

Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, president of the sheriff’s association and the designated spokesman for the group Monday, said the issue involves such a small number of county jail prisoners that he believed they would find a solution that would satisfy all sides. He didn’t address the concerns King and Joyce have about facing a civil rights lawsuit for violating a prisoner’s rights, but said that ICE had developed a new form that would help meet the need to establish probable cause to hold an undocumented immigrant in detention without an actual charge.

“There are very limited cases where we are going against anything that ICE is doing,” he said. “We are still holding federal prisoners in our jails throughout the state. …

“Some of the paperwork has to be changed around and we are working to make that process a lot better and smoother so it is workable for everybody.”

Both King and Joyce previously said they wouldn’t violate prisoner rights by holding them without arrest warrants.

Joyce is concerned about protecting prisoner rights, saying “that’s the crux of being sued.”

Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said the meeting was called at the sheriffs’ request and that “some great ideas have come out and the cooperation between everybody is right on track.” Morris declined to say whether that progress included an agreement that ICE would need to obtain a warrant for prisoners they want sheriffs to hold beyond the term of a sentence or bail requirements.

In exiting the State House Monday, LePage said the issue was being blown out of proportion and that if sheriffs were worried about civil lawsuits for violating prisoner rights, the governor’s office would step in.

“All they have to do is call the governor’s office and we will step in and take care of it,” LePage said. “That’s what I told them, they don’t have to worry about anything. ICE is more than willing to work with them. We are more than willing to work with them.”

LePage also lashed out at the media after the meeting Monday.

“You guys make it worse,” LePage said to about a dozen television, radio and print journalists. “You guys are the most horrific organization on the face of the earth. Thank you very much.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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