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Los Angeles sheriff to stop turning over low-level offenders to immigration

By Tim Gaynor

(Reuters) - The Los Angeles County sheriff will no longer honor federal requests to detain suspected illegal immigrants nabbed for low-level crimes like petty theft and graffiti after new state guidelines noted the practice is voluntary, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced the change a day after California's attorney general issued a directive, welcomed by immigration activists, that compliance with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention requests was discretionary.

Attorney General Kamala Harris is the highest state official so far to join a handful of dissenting authorities in major U.S. cities who oppose a cooperation program between immigration agents and local law enforcement known as "Secure Communities.

A spokesman for Baca, who has in the past supported federal immigration requests, said new guidelines were being written and would likely come into effect by the end of the year.

"Right now, we are in transition," said spokesman Steve Whitmore, adding that the new policy would "only address low-level... non-violent offenders" arrested for crimes such as petty theft and graffiti.

The Secure Communities program was created to weed out lawbreaking illegal immigrants from county jails, but has been lambasted by critics for placing victims of domestic violence in deportation proceedings and deterring immigrants from reporting crimes.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has previously said he does not believe federal detentions requests should apply to illegal immigrants arrested for "low-grade misdemeanor offenses" and similar crimes, and wants his department to refrain from handing over illegal immigrants arrested for such offenses to federal authorities for potential deportation.

On Monday, a revised bill was introduced in the California state legislature that would limit local authorities from honoring detention requests unless those individuals were convicted of a serious or violent felony.

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in September, saying the legislation was "fatally flawed" by exempting individuals who had committed crimes such as child abuse, drug trafficking and selling weapons.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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