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The Montana Supreme Court has dismissed a petition seeking the release of a Mexican immigrant who had been in the Gallatin County jail, ruling that the issue was moot now that he is in the custody of federal immigration authorities.

However, justices declined to rule on the overarching argument about whether or not the use of immigration detainers is legal in Montana.

In a ruling issued Thursday afternoon, justices dismissed a petition asking for the release of 46-year-old Arturo Valerio-Gonzales, who had been in the Gallatin County jail for five months on a misdemeanor sexual assault charge.

Valerio-Gonzales was arrested in June and held in jail on $5,000 bond. He pleaded not guilty to the sexual assault charge and was scheduled for a December trial in Gallatin County Justice Court.

The same day as his arrest, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed a detainer on Valerio-Gonzales, who was reportedly in the U.S. illegally.

In November, Valerio-Gonzales’ defense attorneys Annie DeWolf and Karolina Tierney filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Montana Supreme Court after a similar petition was denied by Gallatin County District Court Judge Rienne McElyea.

As part of the petition, they argued that the use of ICE detainers, which ask local authorities to keep a suspected illegal immigrant for not more than 48 hours beyond when the person would otherwise be released from state custody, is unconstitutional.

The request was supported by a number of human rights groups across Montana, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, the Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, the Montana Association of Christians, the Montana Racial Equity Project and Montana Women Vote.

“Montana should join the list of states that have rejected the widespread use of civil ICE detainers as a means of unlawfully imprisoning individuals, who enjoy the presumption of innocence, pending trial,” the groups wrote in a brief filed as part of the case.

The petition was also supported by law professors from dozens of universities across the country, including Harvard, Yale and the University of Montana.

The U.S. Department of Justice, the Montana Attorney General’s Office and Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert all objected to the petition.

While the petition was pending, at a hearing earlier this month Gallatin County Justice Court Judge Rick West moved Valerio-Gonzales’ trial to January and released him on his own recognizance. He was then immediately taken into ICE custody and then taken to Great Falls and eventually to Seattle, DeWolf said.

Valerio-Gonzales’ release rendered his petition moot, the state and federal officials argued. In addition, they said that ICE detainers are legal.

“Without such cooperation (between local and federal agencies), removable aliens would be released into local communities, where it is harder and more dangerous for ICE to take custody of them and where they may commit more crimes,” wrote Erez Reuveni with Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation.

In the ruling issued Thursday, the Montana Supreme Court agreed with the state and federal officials.

“The sole controversy raised in this petition was the legality of the detention center’s confinement of Valerio-Gonzales in compliance with the immigration detainer. Once Valerio-Gonzales was transferred to DHS custody, he was no longer in the custody of the detention center,” wrote Chief Justice Mike McGrath. “His petition is therefore moot.”

“Obviously we’re disappointed,” DeWolf said Friday. “It’s pretty heartbreaking because he waited in jail for five months. He could have just posted the bond and gone straight into immigration custody, but he wanted to go to trial. But that’s not going to happen.”

Alex Rate, legal director for ACLU of Montana, echoed DeWolf, saying they were disappointed by the ruling.

“I do think this is going to come up again and the court didn’t get to the merits of the issue,” Rate said. “It’s fair to say we’re going to be back in court dealing with similar issues.”

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert was out of the office Friday. And the Montana Attorney General’s Office did not return a request for comment.

Valerio-Gonzales, of Ogden, Utah, is accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a vehicle at a Four Corners gas station. The woman told investigators that she had been traveling with Valerio-Gonzales to Utah and they had pulled over to rest when the alleged incident occurred.

According to the ACLU of Montana, Valerio-Gonzales has lived in Ogden since 1999, where he works as a large-engine mechanic and has two children who are American citizens. Valerio-Gonzales had been saving up money to join his wife in Mexico until she was murdered in 2014, according to the ACLU. Valerio-Gonzales’ daughter lived with his wife at the time of her death and the family has been living apart since, the ACLU said.

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Whitney Bermes can be reached at wbermes@dailychronicle.com or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.

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