A Fairfax County police officer has been suspended for allegedly detaining a driver involved in a traffic crash and turning the person over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after discovering the individual had an immigration violation, the department announced Tuesday.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler apologized for the incident, saying the unnamed officer apparently violated the department's long-standing policy against performing civil immigration enforcement for ICE. An investigation was underway.
The incident comes as immigrant communities in Fairfax County and across the nation are on edge amid stepped-up immigration enforcement by the Trump administration. Many liberal jurisdictions such as Fairfax County have sought to limit their cooperation with ICE amid anger over President Donald Trump's policies.
"This is an unfortunate issue where the officer was confused," Roessler said. "We have trained on this issue a lot. This is the first time we've had a lapse in judgment, and the officer is being punished."
Police said the incident began when the officer was called to a crash the afternoon of Sept. 21. The officer discovered one of the drivers did not have a Virginia driver license and obtained the person's information to run a check with the Department of Motor Vehicles, police said.
The check showed that ICE had issued an administrative violation to the person for not attending a deportation hearing.
The officer verified the warrant through the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety Communications' teletype section, which is responsible for checking on all warrants with originating agencies, police said.
The officer then contacted the ICE agent listed on the warrant, who was nearby and came to the scene, police said. The officer issued the driver a ticket for driving without a license, which would normally result in the person being let go.
But the officer held the driver under custodial detention and the person was turned over to the federal agency.
Since 2007, the Fairfax County Police Department has barred officers from confirming individuals' immigration status and taking them into custody solely on civil violations of immigration law. Individuals who are accused of crimes and are arrested have their immigration status checked when they are booked at the county jail.
Roessler said the officer had been on the job for only a "few years" but that it did not excuse the error. He said the officer was aware it was a mistake and had not willfully violated the department's policy on cooperation with ICE.
Roessler said officers train on the policy at the police academy and during in-service refreshers. The officer involved has been barred from law enforcement duties pending the outcome of the investigation. Roessler declined to say what punishment the officer could face.
The driver was released by ICE after several hours and was issued an ankle monitor.
Roessler said that the incident was brought to his attention by email and that it is the first time the department has had to deal with this type of case.
The incident troubled immigrant advocates.
"It's clear that more training is needed within the ranks of FCPD," said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director for the Legal Aid Justice Center. "This is complicated stuff, but lives are on the line and families can be destroyed when an officer gets it wrong."
Roessler said that he was reminding officers of the department's policy toward ICE and that the officer involved in the incident would go for remedial training.
Fairfax County has taken steps to help immigrants and cut ties with ICE in recent years as controversy has grown over Trump's immigration policies.
This week, federal authorities scrapped plans to put a center for unaccompanied minor children in Northern Virginia, after protests. In May, Fairfax County approved a legal fund for undocumented immigrants fighting deportation. Last year, the Fairfax County sheriff dropped an agreement with ICE to hold inmates suspected of being in the country illegally past the end of their sentences.
Luis Aguilar, the director of immigrant-aid group CASA's Virginia branch, applauded Roessler for quickly investigating the incident and publicly releasing details, but he said the relationship between immigrant communities and authorities remains fragile, potentially leading to fewer people coming forward to report crimes and serve as witnesses.
"There is a very low trust with any government institution given the current situation with the Trump administration," Aguilar said. "With incidents like this, they've added to the distrust."