Laken Riley case: Sheriff to strengthen record-keeping for migrants

Athens-Clarke County Sheriff John Q. Williams speaks during a news conference on the University of Georgia campus announcing a suspect had been charged with murder in the death of a student in Athens, GA, Friday, February 23, 2024. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll for the AJC

Credit: Nell Carroll for the AJC

Athens-Clarke County Sheriff John Q. Williams speaks during a news conference on the University of Georgia campus announcing a suspect had been charged with murder in the death of a student in Athens, GA, Friday, February 23, 2024. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office said it will strengthen its record-keeping practices in future interactions with undocumented immigrants.

The move comes after police arrested Jose Antonio Ibarra on Feb. 23 and charged him with multiple counts including malice murder in the death of nursing student Laken Riley on the University of Georgia’s campus. Authorities say Ibarra, a Venezuelan, entered the U.S. illegally.

Riley’s slaying has become the latest flashpoint in the heated national debate over immigration. It also has put Athens-Clarke County authorities under the microscope, with critics accusing them of not doing enough to enforce immigration laws.

Sheriff John Q. Williams and his office said Thursday that Riley’s Feb. 22 death “did call attention to some record-keeping practices that could be improved to help identify and track our responses to any interactions with subjects determined to be undocumented.”

“The stakes involved are of the highest importance,” the sheriff’s office stated in a press release. “As a result, we are strengthening our policy and will continue to work to uphold all local, state, and federal laws.”

The sheriff’s office said its staff will run an additional “Immigration Alien Queries” search in the Georgia Crime Information Center when booking arrestees, for information on all arrestees, and “not just those that have finger-printable charges.” Staff will also keep a separate electronic log of all “IAQ” results, allowing historical information to be accessed without asking or waiting for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This new process adds an additional layer to ensure we are within state law guidelines,” the sheriff’s office said.

Ibarra, 26, remains in the Clarke County Jail without bond.

The sheriff’s office said Ibarra, who was apprehended by U.S. border patrol agents in September 2022, had never been arrested in Athens-Clarke County or the state of Georgia before Riley’s death.

On Oct. 27, 2023, Ibarra and his brother were apprehended by officers from the Athens-Clarke County Police Department and issued citations after being accused of stealing about $200 worth of food and clothing from a local Walmart. They were not arrested.

The police department said it is standard practice to issue citations for certain misdemeanor crimes, including shoplifting. It said its officers don’t have immediate access to immigration status, which is typically checked by jailers during the booking process of an arrestee.

Records show that a bench warrant for Ibarra’s arrest was issued on Dec. 20 after he failed to appear in court on the theft charge. Bench warrants typically don’t prompt immediate attempts to find a defendant and put them in jail.

The sheriff’s office said the first contact it had with Ibarra was after his arrest in Riley’s death. It said its policy is to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement whenever someone either known or suspected to be a foreign national is booked into the jail.

The office allows ICE to take custody of a noncitizen before their release from jail, but does not detain anyone beyond their release date at ICE’s request, unless ordered by a judge.

“ICE detainers are requests, not a court order or warrant,” the sheriff’s office said Thursday. “Holding a person based solely on an ICE detainer constitutes a warrantless arrest. The policy does allow for detaining if a warrant or court order signed by a judge is issued.”

The office’s policy regarding foreigners booked into jail was enacted in 2018 after a review of best practices, relevant case law, and input from lawyers and the public, it said.

“We would like to reaffirm to the people who live, work, and contribute to Athens-Clarke County that we care about your safety and this is our main priority,” the sheriff’s office stated.

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz last week fielded calls for his resignation over Riley’s death from a group of demonstrators who alleged the county’s limited cooperation with immigration authorities makes it a sanctuary city. And conservative lawmakers have used the 22-year-old student’s slaying to champion legislation that would penalize sheriffs and jailers who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents when someone in custody is not a U.S. citizen.

The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday that prospective policy changes have been created for the sheriff’s review in the event that the legislation, House Bill 1105, becomes law. It said its current policy is “directly in line” with state law.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said immigration authorities were not informed of Ibarra’s shoplifting citation in Athens or his arrest the previous month in New York, where he was charged with a motor vehicle license violation and acting in a manner to injure a child. Ibarra had reportedly ridden a moped with a child passenger who wasn’t restrained or wearing head protection.

Immigration lawyers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week it’s unlikely Ibarra would have been detained earlier by ICE from his previous run-ins with police, given the minor charges, even if those incidents had occurred in local jurisdictions that cooperate more closely with immigration authorities.