The governor said two sheriffs aren’t doing their legal duty — one suggested the governor doesn’t know the facts.

The kindling conflict between some Maine law enforcement and Gov. Paul LePage was sparked last week when the sheriff in Maine’s most populous county announced that he would no longer honor federal immigration officials’ requests to hold people in jail beyond their scheduled release dates.

The governor claims that Maine law and one of his executive orders requires that sheriffs comply with these requests, and he’s threatening to remove those who don’t. But federal judges have ruled that doing so can violate the Fourth Amendment, and the head of a national sheriffs group called LePage’s move unprecedented and an effort to “redefine the terms of the Constitution.”

So just what is the bone between the governor, the sheriffs and the feds?

Holding people for the feds?

At the heart of this tangle of politics and law is a relatively simple question: Should jail officials temporarily hold someone who would otherwise be released because immigration agents ask them to?

Since long before the election of President Donald Trump, the executive branch’s answer has been yes.

During President Barack Obama’s deportation push, which peaked in 2013 and 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents would regularly ask local sheriffs or police departments that operate jails to hold someone for two additional days so federal agents could again arrest him or her. And these requests, known as detainers, have remained an important tool as the Trump administration seeks to crack down on immigration enforcement.

ICE makes these requests when someone who is believed to be in the country illegally is arrested for an unrelated charge, which could be anything from a violent crime to a petty misdemeanor. The detainers allow the agency to make up for not having enough officers to take custody of every person who is subject to deportation at the moment he or she is arrested.

“ICE’s goal is to build cooperative, respectful relationships with our law enforcement partners to help prevent dangerous criminal aliens from being released back onto the streets to potentially victimize our communities,” an agency spokesperson said recently.

Elected at the county level to enforce the law and protect their constituents, sheriffs tend to share this concern with releasing people who might threaten the community. But Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce is among a growing number of sheriffs across the country who answer the core question differently — they shouldn’t hold people for ICE, because they legally can’t.

Not legally binding

In a recent letter to all 16 Maine sheriffs, LePage claimed that state law allows him to order them to honor detainer requests.

But sheriffs across the country are concerned that doing so might violate the highest law of the land and expose them to costly lawsuits. They feel caught between an interest in working with federal law enforcement and their obligations to respect people’s constitutional rights.

This concern arises from a 2014 case in which a federal judge ruled that an Oregon jail had violated a woman’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure by holding her for 19 hours after her case had been settled.

The county jail detained Maria Miranda-Olivares upon a request from ICE that local officials believed carried the force of law. But in a decision that has since been affirmed in other similar cases, the court ruled that honoring these requests from ICE is not legally required and doing so had violated the Constitution.

The county eventually settled with Miranda-Olivares for more than $30,000 and paid her legal bills.

That decision set off a ripple effect, with sheriffs and counties across the country paying tens of thousands of dollars in suits over honoring ICE requests and others enacting policies against complying with the federal requests. The legal wave arrived in Maine last week when Cumberland County became the first jurisdiction in the state to say it would not comply with detainer requests.

In so-called “sanctuary cities,” limiting cooperation with ICE is largely a political matter. But most sheriffs, including Joyce in Cumberland County, who don’t honor requests to hold immigrants frame it as a question of limiting liability and respecting people’s constitutional rights.

Holding someone for ICE “could violate the individual’s Fourth Amendment right and we could ultimately be sued for false imprisonment,” Joyce said last week.

‘Muddy waters’

In his letter to Maine’s sheriffs, LePage said one of his executive orders grants him the power to command sheriffs to honor ICE detention requests and threatened to start proceedings to remove sheriffs who don’t.

This amounts to an attempt to override federal judges’ rulings on the matter, according to Jonathan Thompson, executive director of National Sheriffs Association. And it will only deepen the legal peril Maine sheriffs might face if someone sues them for wrongful imprisonment.

“It looks like your governor has decided to redefine the terms of the Constitution,” Thompson said. “What he is trying to do is to say it is constitutional when several district courts have said it isn’t.”

Because of these court rulings, the National Sheriffs Association has advised its members not to honor ICE detention requests. And Thompson said he did not know of any other governors threatening to oust sheriffs over not doing so.

In a statement, the Maine Sheriffs Association noted that the governor’s executive order about cooperating with immigration officials is explicitly limited by the Maine and United States constitutions.

“The issue of the administration of the federal detainer process is a national one, with constitutional considerations, and must be resolved at the federal level,” the group said.

The sheriffs themselves have taken varied positions on the issue, though most said ICE rarely, if ever, asks them to hold anyone.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster and Sheriff Eric Samson, of Androscoggin County, each said he would comply with ICE detainer requests, though neither has received any recently. In contrast, Sheriff William King, of York County, and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said they would not honor them.

For LePage, threatening the sheriffs is a way to align himself with the Trump administration’s effort to pressure local law officers to aid in enforcing federal immigration policies. And the move will likely be consumed as red meat by governor’s base, with whom immigration remains a politically potent issue despite Maine having one of the lowest rates of illegal immigration in the country.

Among sheriffs, however, the question of honoring detainers does not break neatly along partisan lines. Joyce in Cumberland County is a Democrat, but Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin, a Republican, said he largely agrees with his colleague’s decision, although he has not received any ICE detainer requests himself.

“The sheriffs are working for the people, for the Constitution and for the governor, so it’s a balancing act and I think that’s where the problems arise,” Goggin said. “It’s very muddy waters.”