Thurston County officials are setting meetings in motion and gathering information as they grapple with issues raised by a June 20 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrest outside the Thurston County courthouse.
The arrest, which raised concerns for many in the local legal community, also has raised questions about compliance with a recently established state law. The county is looking into the incident and what it might mean for the future, while the court is looking to create an ICE policy.
County: A public meeting on the books, legal analyses underway
A public meeting titled “ICE Arrest After Action” is on the county’s master calendar for Sept. 5.
Robin Campbell, assistant county manager, told The Olympian that “the main players of the law and justice sector of the county” were invited to attend, including prosecuting attorney Jon Tunheim, Sheriff John Snaza, presiding judge of Superior Court Christine Schaller, presiding judge of the District Court Brett Buckley, director of public defense Patrick O’Connor, and all three county commissioners.
County Manager Ramiro Chavez told The Olympian the agenda has not been set, but the focal point of the meeting will be lessons learned from the June 20 arrest. He also expects a broad conversation that includes the Keep Washington Working Act, litigation happening in the state and across the country, and possible next steps.
“We cannot just treat this incident as isolated to the courts, isolated to the courthouse, or isolated to the county,” Chavez said. “That’s why I invited the presiding judges for the superior and district courts and administrators for the superior and district courts. I don’t see this being treated by a silo approach, because we need to be sure all of us are on the same page, countywide.”
The county has undertaken two legal analyses: one of a case in Massachusetts, and one of the Keep Washington Working Act. Commissioner Tye Menser told The Olympian he requested both.
In the Massachusetts case, plaintiffs, including district attorneys and public defenders, brought a lawsuit arguing that ICE’s directive authorizing civil arrests of people attending court on official business is illegal. A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in that case — on the same day as the arrest in Thurston County — in part ordering ICE not to civilly arrest “parties, witnesses, and others attending Massachusetts courthouses on official business while they are going to, attending, or leaving the courthouse” while the ongoing lawsuit plays out.
Chief civil deputy prosecutor Elizabeth Petrich told The Olympian that the county is actively looking into the June 20 arrest and other similar instances across the state with that case in mind, and that the Washington Attorney General’s Office is looking at them as well.
The state Legislature passed the “Keep Washington Working Act” earlier this year, and it went into effect May 21. Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, was the bill’s prime sponsor.
Wellman told The Olympian that the main takeaway for counties interpreting the new law should be “that immigrants play a significant role in our economy,” and that “we are a state that is working well, we want to continue doing that.”
The law creates a work group to, in part, develop strategies to “strengthen immigrants’ career pathways” according to the final bill report. It also lays out requirements for state and local law enforcement and security departments.
For example, it prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from providing a person’s personal information that’s not already publicly available to federal immigration authorities in a noncriminal matter, “except as required by state or federal law.” And, it prohibits state and local law enforcement from entering into agreements, “whether written or oral,” that would give state and local officers federal civil immigration enforcement authority.
Wellman said that nothing in the bill stops law enforcement “from doing what they need to do in terms of a criminal investigation.” She pushed back on the idea that the act might be interpreted as a “sanctuary state” law.
“We can’t give people sanctuary,” Wellman said. “If you’re not here legally, we have no right to grant people citizenship.”
Petrich said she’s analyzing the new law and how it applies to the county and will advise the county on the parameters of the legislation and what sections apply. She could not share findings on compliance with The Olympian due to attorney-client privilege.
Court: An ICE policy work group in the works
The Thurston County Superior Court does not have a policy regarding sharing information or cooperating with ICE, and the manual guiding courthouse security officers — often the first point of contact for court visitors — does not include protocol for officers to follow if ICE agents present themselves. At least not yet.
Superior Court Administrator Pam Hartman Beyer wrote in an email to The Olympian that the court is “forming a workgroup.”
“The Court currently does not have a policy regarding cooperating and/ or (sic) sharing information with ICE,” the email reads. “We are forming a workgroup to develop a policy. We are committed to ensuring that we provide a safe, open, and accessible courthouse complex to all individuals.”
District Court Administrator Jennifer Creighton told The Olympian that district court will be participating in that work group. She said the group also will look at “the responsibility of the court security officers when ICE officially identifies themselves.”
The June arrest would likely have been the first opportunity for such a protocol to be put to use, if it did exist: The arrest was the first of its kind to occur in or near the courthouse, according to County Manager Chavez, and the only such instance reported to members of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network since at least November 2017.
What surveillance video footage shows
The Olympian watched several hours of video surveillance footage showing the exterior and interior of the courthouse building from the morning of the June 20 arrest. Some of the requested footage has not yet been received.
What the footage in hand reveals is limited: The moment of the actual arrest is not within the range of surveillance cameras, and the footage does not include audio. However, it does show a presumed ICE agent presenting what looks like a badge at security, and that agent having conversations with a courthouse security officer before the arrest was made.
The security officer filed an incident report, in which he does not detail what was discussed in his conversations with the ICE agent beyond that the agent “identified himself with security” and “mentioned that he was looking for a person of interest that has multiple federal warrants.”
The report also states the officer was unaware whether the ICE agent was armed.
In a separate incident report, another courthouse security officer wrote that he talked to the ICE agent while in a courtroom.
“I observed the agent standing against the wall at the back of the room…” the report reads. “I asked the agent who he was watching, and he pointed to a man sitting about three rows forward of where I was standing.”
The footage and reports show that two courthouse security officers responded to the arrest itself. One officer wrote that she observed two or three men “in plain clothing” detaining a male.
An email sent the day of the arrest by Probation Manager Raul Salazar and obtained by The Olympian sheds some light on what the actual arrest looked like.
“I witnessed at least three men wrestling with another male,” Salazar wrote. “It appeared they were trying to subdue him and the male was resisting.”
Salazar wrote that the men did not appear to be uniformed, but that he noticed a badge on one of the men’s belts when his coat “came up off his waist” and he noticed “firearms on the belts of at least two of the men who were trying to subdue the person.”
A security officer’s report mentions that the officer brought the subject to his feet, collected his items, and “briefly explained to a female who was accompanying the male subject why the male was getting arrested.”
Two security officers’ reports and the email from Salazar say the arrested man was ultimately walked to a white truck. Video surveillance footage shows a group of men walking to a white truck at 11:20 a.m., and the truck leaving shortly thereafter. That truck appears to have originally pulled into the courthouse complex parking lot at 7:43 a.m.
The Olympian submitted written questions for the security officers on duty, including a question asking what the ICE agent and the security officer discussed during their conversations. To that question, Superior Court Administrator Hartman Beyer responded via email that “the Court is reviewing the incident.” An attempt by The Olympian to contact the officers directly, during work hours, was not successful.
Olympia lawyer Victor Minjares, who is representing the arrested man’s partner in this case, told The Olympian he would like to see an independent investigation of the incident.
“Unfortunately, the reports as I read them have a lot of assumptions and minimal facts,” Minjares said. “So, I think the officers need to be questioned under oath and civilian witnesses need to be interviewed as well.”
Without the facts, Minjares said an analysis of whether the county is complying with state law is not possible.
“You can’t even begin to see if they’re complying with the Keep Washington Working Act unless you have the specific facts thoroughly determined,” Minjares said.
The court and county are not the only bodies looking into the June arrest. District court presiding judge Buckley told The Olympian he sent the information reported by probation manager Salazar to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote in an emailed statement to The Olympian that his office is “reviewing the facts of this instance.”
The Keep Washington Working Act also tasks the state Attorney General with developing and publishing model policies for “limiting immigration enforcement to the fullest extent possible consistent with federal and state law” at several places, including courthouses.
The deadline the new law sets for those model policies is May 21, 2020.
Olympia lawyer Minjares told The Olympian he would have liked to see the state Supreme Court implement an interim rule immediately after the law took effect.
Minjares sent a letter dated July 25 to Mary Fairhurst, Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, requesting that the court take action and “promptly enact emergency statewide policies and procedures governing our courts and court staff interactions with federal law enforcement authorities.” He attached a policy by Paula M. Carey, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court, as an example.
The Massachusetts policy gives specific instructions as to responses court officers should give an official from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — ICE is part of DHS — and gives directions for courthouse security personnel. For example, it directs security personnel to pass information immediately to a supervisor or “designated court officer,” then directs that person to inform a specific judge.
Another example of such a policy can be found in New Jersey, where the chief justice of the state supreme court issued a directive in May that includes protocol for responding to ICE activities in courthouses.
In part, New Jersey’s policy states that courthouse security personnel should ask ICE agents to display a copy of the warrant authorizing an arrest and it specifies who courthouse security should notify of the “presence of ICE officials in the courthouse.”
The timeline of when Thurston County judges and other courthouse personnel were notified of the June 20 arrest is not clear. Hartman Beyer sent an email, obtained by The Olympian, to Superior Court judges at 5 p.m. June 20 notifying them of the incident. Buckley told The Olympian he estimates he heard about the incident at about 4 p.m. that day.
An update on the man arrested
Records at the Federal Bureau of Prisons show that the man arrested outside the Thurston County Superior Courthouse was in federal custody at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, as of Aug. 2. According to court records, U.S. Attorneys filed a complaint charging the man, who the complaint says was previously deported in 2012 and 2014, with illegal reentry after deportation.
The complaint also details six convictions on the man’s record, including a conviction for illegal reentry after deportation in 2013, violating a domestic-violence protection order, and hit and run and driving under the influence.
The man is a citizen of El Salvador, according to court documents. The Olympian has attempted to reach out to him for comment through his federal defense lawyer.