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Thurston County leaders meet to discuss courthouse ICE arrest and next steps

Thurston Co. criminal justice stakeholders discuss June ICE arrest outside courthouse

Stakeholders met Thursday to talk through an arrest made by ICE agents outside the courthouse in June. In this portion of the meeting, Christine Schaller, Presiding Judge of the Superior Court, describes concerns and next steps.
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Stakeholders met Thursday to talk through an arrest made by ICE agents outside the courthouse in June. In this portion of the meeting, Christine Schaller, Presiding Judge of the Superior Court, describes concerns and next steps.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd Thursday, major players in Thurston County’s criminal justice community discussed an arrest made by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents earlier this summer outside the county courthouse complex.

In addition to all three county commissioners and County Manager Ramiro Chavez, the meeting included:

  • Brett Buckley, Presiding Judge of Thurston County District Court

  • Marianne Clear, Director of Pretrial Services

  • Jennifer Creighton, District Court Administrator

  • Pam Hartman Beyer, Superior Court Administrator

  • Larry Jefferson, Senior Defense Attorney

  • Patrick O’Connor, Director of Thurston County Public Defense

  • Elizabeth Petrich, Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor

  • Christine Schaller, Presiding Judge of Thurston County Superior Court

  • Jon Tunheim, Thurston County Prosecutor

The conversation began with a brief overview of the June 20 arrest, when at least three plain-clothes ICE agents arrested a man who had just finished a hearing in Superior Court, according to witness accounts and video surveillance footage. The man, a citizen of El Salvador, allegedly resisted and was taken to the ground by the agents, who witnesses say arrested the man then lead him to an unmarked truck.

Attendees didn’t spend much time rehashing the arrest and instead focused on issues it raised and next steps. At one point, though, Commissioner Gary Edwards brought up a concern that perhaps someone “tipped off” ICE agents.

Judge Schaller said it didn’t seem like a tip could’ve come from inside the court.

“In these cases, we have no idea what a person’s status is in the country,” Schaller said. “We never inquire — ever — what a person’s status is when they come before the court.” It’s not likely prosecutors would have that information, she said, and a public defender wouldn’t disclose it if they did.

Anybody can access a court calendar, though, public defense director O’Connor said.

“We have to operate under the assumption that these (ICE) officers, in the future, can be continuing to look at public calendars ... and operate under the assumption that, without any coordination, they can be present at any of those court hearings to execute a warrant,” O’Connor said.

Consensus on ongoing concerns

“I think it’s pretty clear that the criminal justice stakeholders that are here today are here because we are unified in our concerns about what happened and what the future looks like and what our response can be to this,” Prosecutor Tunheim said.

Among those concerns are fear of potential chilling effect on people who need to visit the courts — defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, people who want to get married, parents in dependency cases, and people seeking protection orders.

Judge Buckley also raised concern about the June 20 arrest in which courthouse visitors saw an unidentified person wrestle another unidentified person to the ground in a public space, handcuffing them and putting them into an unidentified vehicle. He said that could raise concern for anyone.

“It has all the lookings of a kidnapping,” Buckley said.

Arrests made by local law enforcement at the courthouses, in contrast, are “professional, safe, and collegial,” O’Connor said.

“I’m not an expert on law enforcement tactics, but I’ve worked with law enforcement a long time, and I’ve just never seen anything like this,” Tunheim added later.

Officials agreed that communication the day of the arrest was inadequate. Both presiding judges said it took too long for court staff and judges to be made aware of the arrest. Defense attorney Jefferson said his office didn’t know until the next day that the individual arrested was one of the office’s clients. Tunheim said he believes the Prosecutor’s Office’s source of information on the incident was the public defender’s office.

“I would really think that notice to the county and notice to the officials that should get notice would be entirely appropriate,” Judge Buckley said.

The challenge with communication is one piece of a larger concern over a lack of protocol for the courthouse to follow when something like this happens.

“We take the issue very seriously,” Judge Schaller said. “We are concerned, because we don’t think that the situation happened the way that it necessarily should have happened. And that we didn’t have a policy in place instructing our staff on how to handle this situation.”

Next steps

County officials are looking at policy changes, a new courthouse protocol, compliance with the new Keep Washington Working Act, and potential legal action.

Two groups have brought forward policy recommendations for the county to consider: local group Strengthening Sanctuary and a statewide coalition of advocates and legal services organizations. County Manager Chavez said the county will follow up on both sets of recommendations then propose any possibilities for implementation.

Judge Schaller said a draft policy and protocol is now complete that will guide the courts in situations like this. The policy, drafted by a group of stakeholders convened by the Superior Court, will cover how staff and security handle a situation if someone comes into the courthouse with a gun and identifies themselves, so “all law enforcement agencies are treated equally when they come into our courthouse,” Schaller said.

Schaller said the draft is on its way to the district court for approval, and it will come before the board of judges Thursday. The plan is for the policy to be in place while the county waits for the state Attorney General’s Office to develop and release a more comprehensive model policy, as is required by the Keep Washington Working Act. Those model policies are due by May 21, 2020.

Deputy prosecuting attorney Petrich, who analyzed the new law, gave an overview of its many parts. One of the law’s overarching purposes, she said, is “to minimize immigration enforcement in the state of Washington and minimize the deportation of immigrant people from the state of Washington.”

One piece of the law states that local law enforcement cannot ask about or collect information on a person’s immigration or citizenship status or place of birth unless it’s part of a criminal investigation. Commissioner Menser raised a concern that the county may not be complying with a part of the law that says local law enforcement agencies must explain in writing that individuals have a right to refuse to disclose their nationality, citizenship, or immigration status.

“You just said this law is in effect now,” Menser said to Petrich. “And I don’t think we’re doing that. ... I’m just concerned that we’re not in compliance with this, because the former argument that the sheriff was relying on has been eviscerated by this law, and this law is not waiting a year to be in effect.”

Petrich replied that “we are working together with the sheriff’s office on these issues,” and that they are “very important issues we need to continue to address as soon as we can.”

Public defense director O’Connor added that his office is helping to “remedy” that situation as well.

Menser also said he had asked Petrich earlier this summer to look into how a court case in Massachusetts might apply to Thurston County.

In that case, plaintiffs brought a lawsuit arguing ICE’s directive authorizing civil arrests of people attending court on official business is illegal; a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting ICE from making those arrests while the lawsuit plays out.

Prosecutor Tunheim said his office is considering a similar lawsuit — that is, looking at the arguments made in that case and comparing evidence to see whether a similar argument may be made locally.

“I, frankly, agree with the policy that is in that opinion: That there should be, if there’s not already recognized, a common-law right to access local courts by all parties,” Tunheim said.

County manager Chavez said he’s scheduling an executive session where Tunheim and Petrich can talk with commissioners about options.

“There’s a lot of legal questions here, and I kind of need to know what the doors are before I can sort of propose what doors I think — I’m just one commissioner — but what doors I think we should be walking through,” Menser said.

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Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.
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