Chief justice seeks 'sensitive locations' designation for Connecticut courts

Connecticut Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote to top U.S. officials last month to request that immigration agents stop taking custody of people in public areas of state courthouses, joining chief justices from California, New Jersey and Washington in doing so. 

To date, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly have not responded, and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement publication suggests that courthouse enforcement efforts will continue. ICE officials in Hartford could not be reached to comment.

Federal agents have detained at least eight people at Connecticut courthouses this year, according to a public defender who is tracking the incidents. Numbers from previous years were unavailable.

In her May 15 letter, Rogers wrote that having ICE officers detain individuals in public areas of courthouses "may cause litigants, witnesses and interested parties to view our courtrooms as places to avoid, rather than as institutions of fair and impartial justice." She requested that state courthouses be designated as "sensitive locations," as are schools, hospitals, places of worship and public demonstrations.

The Judicial Branch would not comment beyond confirming that Rogers has not received a response.

"I'm very grateful she wrote the letter that she did," said attorney Michael Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School who is working on the immigration issue with students and the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA). "It is my understanding that ICE will not honor that."

The immigrant rights advocates have asked Rogers to limit ICE's access to a state database that contains personal information and to instruct judicial marshals to cooperate with ICE only when the agents have a warrant signed by a judge. They also want the chief justice to ask that agents not "lurk" near courthouses waiting to arrest people.

"ICE is operating as a terrorist organization, in my opinion, under the Trump administration," said Elise L. Villa, supervisory assistant public defender in Superior Court in Bristol. "They're trying to scare people."

Villa said in one instance a victim of domestic violence was detained after the person charged with assaulting her reported her immigration status to federal agents. In another case, a person who was granted permission to enter a diversionary program that would clear their record was detained when they went for their first appointment with the Department of Adult Probation.

Villa said she was speaking for herself, and not the Division of Public Defender Services. She said the agents, sometimes wearing shirts that say, POLICE, aggressively approach people and ask whether they are "so and so."

She said a person has not broken any laws just by virtue of being undocumented, which is a civil violation rather than a criminal offense.

"We advise people coming in and leaving court that they should try not to travel alone, don't respond to strangers calling their name and keep walking," Villa said. "We say, 'Don't talk to ICE agents. Refer them to your attorney.'"  

One of the eight cases involved Jonathan Lopez of New London, a lawful permanent resident of the United States who was detained at the Geographical Area 10 courthouse on Broad Street on Jan. 24 when he arrived for a court appearance on domestic violence charges. Lopez, a convicted felon, has since been deported to the Dominican Republic because of his criminal record.

New London attorney Marcy S. Levine represented Lopez and handles other immigration matters.

"It really is counterintuitive to the State of Connecticut, forget about the moral and humanitarian aspects, if people are fearful to come to court," Levine said. "That's a lot of times when I've been having people retain me even if they think it's a case where they may not need counsel. They feel that if they have this lawyer who knows immigration law and criminal law, they would be safer."

She said bondsmen are less willing to work with undocumented immigrants due to the increased enforcement.

"The presence of immigration officers lurking at our state courthouses deters victims and witnesses from attending state criminal proceedings," said Ana Maria Rivera-Forastieri of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. "This directly undermines our judicial system and access to justice for many state residents. We applaud Chief Justice Rogers for taking this meaningful step towards protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants in Connecticut, and look forward to continuing our mutual work to ensure that our communities are safe from deceptive baiting tactics by ICE."

CIRA is requesting that Connecticut judicial marshals stop enforcing immigration detainers or use the same guidelines used by the state Department of Correction when ICE notifies them that they want to take custody of the person upon their release from state custody.

A spokesman for the corrections department said DOC will hold a person for up to 48 hours on an ICE detainer when they meet one or more of three conditions: there is a prior conviction of a violent criminal felony offense, they receive a positive response from the Terrorist Screening Center, or the individual is subject to a Final Order of Deportation or removal, which is accompanied by a judicial warrant.

The CIRA also is urging that Connecticut lawmakers expand a law that partially limits collaboration between ICE and local and state police. They say the law contains several loopholes that allows agents to detain people without a warrant and hold them without due process.

The General Assembly did not act on a proposed bill on that issue during its recent session.

k.florin@theday.com

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