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Woman suing Knox County Sheriff's Office over 287(g) program, saying she was illegally detained

The agreement between the Knox County Sheriff's Office and ICE gives immigration enforcement powers to deputies. It has been controversial for several years.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Maira Oviedo-Granados filed a lawsuit against the Knox County Sheriff's Office after the sheriff's office held her for violating immigration law, the lawsuit said. 

According to the lawsuit, Oviedo was detained from November 2020 to January 2021. 

The lawsuit said KCSO used a "287(g) Agreement" which gives KCSO Deputies authority to "identify and process noncitizens," according to the Department of Homeland Security. The program has been controversial in the Knox County community for several years.

More specifically the agreement, which delegates immigration authority from federal agents to local law enforcement, lets the sheriff's office interview detainees in the jail regarding their immigration status, make determinations about their deportability, and access federal databases and computer systems, according to experts.

The controversial 287(g) program trains deputies to check a suspect's immigration status after an arrest is made.  The program has also been repeatedly criticized by local immigration activist groups. Knox County was also the only county in Tennessee to participate in the 287(g) program.

The plaintiff's lawyers argue that the 287(g) agreement is illegal because the Knox County Commission did not vote to give the sheriff's office the authority to enter into that agreement.

The lawsuit cites TCA 50-1-101(a), a state law from 2007 that requires law enforcement agencies to get "approval from the governing legislative body" before entering into such agreements. 

However, in a memorandum from earlier this year, the Knox County Law Director said a statute passed in 2018 supersedes TCA 50-1-101(a), and it does not require approval from the legislative body. 

Yet the law requires the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House to be notified, which the Sheriff's Office did in 2021 — after Oviedo had been detained.

The lawsuit said Oviedo called 911 because her partner assaulted her. Through an interpreter, she told the 911 operator she was worried he had a gun, according to the transcript. 

When deputies arrived, they arrested Oviedo instead of her English-speaking partner, the lawsuit said. Court documents show Oviedo was charged with simple assault. 

Once the Magistrate Judge saw the 911 transcript, the judge dismissed the case, according to the lawsuit. 

Oviedo was released from detention while she awaited the results of her pending asylum claim. 

"It's somewhat shocking," said T. Scott Jones, a local attorney. "But then when one reads further into it, I think that you see that it is basically painted with a very broad brush in amongst that broad brush is rooms for a lot of fine lines."

Jones said he thinks it's an issue of policy, not necessarily one of the sheriff's department breaking the law. 

"There's a governmental document that appears to give the authority to the Knox County Sheriff's Office to hold the individual in question," Jones said. "I don't know that at the end of the day, that the court system is going to find a substantive violation of the law."