chilling effect

New York Sues ICE to Stop Arrests of Immigrants at Courts

New York Attorney General Letitia James announces lawsuits challenging ICE's authority to make immigration arrests at state courthouses, Sept. 25, 2019.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announces lawsuits challenging ICE’s authority to make immigration arrests at state courthouses, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo: @NewYorkStateAG/Twitter

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of immigrants in and around New York courthouses deter witnesses from aiding law enforcement — and prevent victims from reporting crimes, a lawsuit seeking to stop the arrests charges.

The legal action, filed Wednesday by Attorney General Letitia James and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, takes aim at ICE’s growing recent practice of nabbing immigrants with courthouse appointments.

The federal immigration agency “disrupts the effective functioning of our courts, deters victims and witnesses from assisting law enforcement and vindicating their rights, hinders criminal prosecution, and undermines public safety,” according to the lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Federal Court.

Immigration agents’ presence in and around courthouses delays justice because people are failing to show up in court, says the lawsuit.

The suit — which marks the first time a state has sued to stop arrests, according to James’ office — contends ICE’s tactics intrude on state powers under the Constitution, and violate common law prohibiting civil arrests around courthouses.

Fear Stalls Justice

James and Gonzalez cite a June case in which an ICE agent entered Manhattan Criminal Court and informed the court officer he was there to observe a defendant he planned to arrest.

Since the ICE agent did not have a judicial warrant, the court officer told him an arrest could not be made in the building, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, the ICE agent announced he would arrest the defendant outside the courthouse. The judge wound up postponing the proceedings for nearly two months.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Brooklyn DA contends his office’s ability to prosecute cases has been “deeply affected” by ICE’s courthouse activities, which have instilled fear in immigrant communities.

Gonzalez pointed to the case of a gunpoint robbery victim who refused to testify, afraid ICE agents would nab him in court. Another man, robbed at knifepoint, refused to take the stand.

Without his testimony, the assistant district attorney on the case was forced to reduce the charges, Gonzalez’s office said in the lawsuit.

Courthouse Arrests on the Rise

The Immigrant Defense Project, which focuses on immigrant’s legal rights, compiled reports of 127 ICE arrests in and around courthouses in New York City. Of those reports, 35 came from Brooklyn.

Statewide, the group logged 178 immigration arrests in or near courthouses in 2018, up from 11 two years prior.

In April, the Office of Court Administration issued a rule intended to prevent immigration agents from making arrests inside courthouses unless they had a judicial warrant, making New York the first state to issue such a directive.

Officials in other states also have taken steps to curb ICE’s presence in and near courthouses.

A pair of district attorneys in Massachusetts sued ICE in late April over the agency’s policy of making civil immigration arrests inside state courthouses. The lawsuit’s reasoning mirrored James and Gonzalez’ argument.

Two months after the suit was filed, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction temporarily halting ICE’s ability to make civil arrests inside Massachusetts courthouses.

A Case on Behalf of ‘John Doe’

Meanwhile, The Legal Aid  Society and Manhattan-based law firm Clearly Gottlieb filed a separate suit Wednesday seeking a permanent injunction against ICE’s courthouse arrests.

The plaintiff is an anonymous John Doe, who does not have lawful immigration status in the U.S. and has lived in New York for the last four years.

Although he needs an order of protection against his former partner, who was abusive, the John Doe has so far declined to act due to concerns of being arrested by ICE in court, according to the lawsuit.

The suit alleges the “unlawful surveillance and arrests” by ICE in and around New York courthouses violates the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees the right to due process.

ICE’s practices also violate the First Amendment, which “includes the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” according to the John Doe lawsuit.

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