Chavez v. McFadden, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jun. 5, 2020)

Carlos Chavez and Luis Lopez, initially charged with state crimes and held in pretrial detention in the Mecklenburg County Jail, both became eligible for release from their state charges on October 13, 2017. But they were not released. The Sheriff, a participant in a § 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, continued to hold them on immigration-related warrants and detainers. That same day, both men filed petitions for a writ of habeas corpus. A superior court judge entered orders finding that the men were being unlawfully detained and ordered their discharge from custody. The Sheriff declined to release either petitioner and delivered them to federal immigration custody. In November 2017, the Sheriff filed petitions for writ of certiorari with the Court of Appeals to review the trial judge’s orders, and a writ of prohibition seeking to preclude similar orders in the future. The next month, the Court of Appeals allowed the petitions and entered an order prohibiting a trial court from issuing a writ of habeas corpus for a person detained pursuant to a 287(g) agreement. The following year the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court orders for lack of jurisdiction, concluding that they infringed upon the federal government’s exclusive authority over immigration matters. Chavez v. Carmichael, 262 N.C. App. 196 (2018).

The Supreme Court allowed discretionary review and affirmed in part. The Court concluded as a threshold matter that although the matter was rendered moot when the Sheriff turned the men over to immigration authorities, the case fell within the scope of the public interest exception to the mootness doctrine. Proceeding to the merits, the Court concluded that a state court judge cannot interfere with the custody and detention of individuals held pursuant to federal authority, which includes state officials acting in accordance with a § 287(g) agreement. A trial court has jurisdiction to determine as an initial matter whether it has the authority to issue the writ, but once that initial examination of the application shows that the petitioner is being held pursuant to an immigration-related warrant or detainer, the trial court should summarily deny the application. Here, the applications, on their face, informed the judge that the petitioners were being held on immigration related process by a custodian who was a party to a § 287(g) agreement, and should therefore have been denied. The Court said the Court of Appeals erred to the extent that it held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to make even an initial determination as to the basis for the petitioners’ detention, and also by addressing the extent to which habeas relief is available to petitioners detained on immigration-related documents by sheriffs who are not parties to § 287(g) agreements. In a footnote, the Court vacated the portion of the Court of Appeals’ decision ordering that a copy of its decision be sent to the Judicial Standards Commission.