Gov. Paul LePage is forcing Maine’s county sheriffs to choose between crossing him and crossing the U.S. Constitution — and that shouldn’t be a hard choice.

The governor is threatening to fire sheriffs unless they keep some people in jail for no reason other than as a favor to federal immigration agencies. The sheriffs should make no apology for pushing back against this flagrantly unconstitutional demand.

“We have a couple sheriffs who say they’re not going to be working with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” LePage blustered Monday to national radio host Laura Ingraham. “Well, unbeknownst to them, the Maine Constitution says if they don’t follow state law, that I can remove them. So there’s likelihood you’re going to be hearing some stories about sheriffs being removed from their duties.”

The state constitution does give the governor the power to remove sheriffs who aren’t doing their job. But it doesn’t give him the authority to demand cooperation with immigration detention requests (as he did Tuesday in a letter he sent to all 16 Maine sheriffs).

Under both the Maine and U.S. constitutions, police and sheriffs can’t arrest and jail someone unless a judge agrees that there’s probable cause to believe that the person has done something so serious that they should be behind bars. And once inmates have been bailed out or served their sentence, sheriffs have no authority to continue to hold them. So if ICE thinks someone should be jailed, ICE is constitutionally obligated to get a warrant from a judge. Most of the time, though, the federal agency takes the easy way out by issuing detainers — administrative warrants that require no judicial review or approval.

But holding an immigrant based solely on ICE’s say-so leaves jails open to being sued for civil rights violations — which is why Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce and York County Sheriff William King wisely declared this month that they would no longer hold jail inmates beyond their release date without a warrant from a judge.

“This is not anti-ICE; this is protecting Cumberland County taxpayers from exorbitant costs if one of these individuals sues us and the case goes bad,” Joyce explained Monday. Governments have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in judgments or settlements to plaintiffs who were subject to wrongful ICE detainers. One New York City case resulted in a $145,000 payout.

Giving in to ICE’s warrantless detainer requests will benefit only ICE. As King’s and Joyce’s fellow sheriffs weigh their response to LePage’s demand, they should keep this in mind — and come down on the side of the people they serve and their constitutional protections.

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