Bill Banning Immigration Arrests at Courthouses Passes Legislative Hurdle

When Paula Martinez and her partner walked out of the Littleton Municipal Court, a white van and two people dressed in civilian clothes were waiting for her.

It was January 2018, and Martinez had come to court to sort out a disorderly-conduct charge that she got after calling 911 during an argument with her partner. However, after exiting the courthouse, the two were quickly arrested.

"I was just trying to do the right thing," Martinez testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 29 in support of a bill that would prohibit Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from making arrests at or near courthouses.

"Being arrested by ICE, then being in the detention center for two weeks when I had a four-month-old at home and a six-year-old, has put my life upside down," Martinez told lawmakers, her voice cracking.

The committee voted three to two to advance the bill, which is being carried by Democrat Senator Julie Gonzales, to the Senate.

"When courthouses no longer are safe for everyone in Colorado to go and seek justice, [that] strikes me as problematic, and that is what this bill...seeks to address," Gonzales testified at the committee hearing.

According to legal experts who testified in support of the bill, courthouse arrests by ICE have expanded dramatically under the Trump administration.

"These arrests chill people from coming to court and even calling law enforcement in times of need," said Arash Jahanian, the director of policy and civil rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office.

The bill requires law enforcement officers who are neither serving as security nor participating in a legal proceeding to identify themselves to courthouse personnel and state their purpose for being at the courthouse. Anyone in violation risks being charged with contempt of court and being sued.

"They seem to be doing it sometimes before court so that the person is not able to go into court and actually enter a plea, sometimes after court and prior to sentencing," Maureen Cain of the Colorado State Public Defender's Office testified before the committee. "This practice does, in fact, interfere with us completing our representation of our clients."

No one testified in opposition to the bill, and ICE declined to comment specifically on the legislation but did share with Westword a statement on courthouse arrests.

"ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers have been provided broad at-large arrest authority by Congress and may lawfully arrest removable aliens in courthouses, which is often necessitated by local policies that prevent law enforcement from cooperating with ICE efforts to arrange for a safe and orderly transfer of custody in the setting of a state or county prison or jail," Alethea Smock, a spokesperson for ICE's Denver field office, wrote to Westword.

Last year the Colorado legislature passed a bill that prohibits local law enforcement agencies from obliging detainer requests from ICE, which ask law enforcement to hold an inmate that is set to be released after serving a sentence or bonding out for up to 48 hours so that ICE can arrest them.

"Now that many law enforcement agencies no longer honor ICE detainers, these individuals, who often have significant criminal histories, are released onto the street, presenting a potential public safety threat. When ICE Fugitive Operations officers have to go out into the community to proactively locate these criminal aliens, regardless of the precautions they take, it needlessly puts our personnel and potentially innocent bystanders in harm’s way," Smock wrote.

The original version of the 2019 bill would have banned any type of cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities when it comes to enforcing immigration law. But that part of the bill was removed from the final version, largely because of pressure from Governor Jared Polis.

Polis offered tentative support for Gonzales's bill regarding courthouse arrests.

"The Governor supports the principle of this bill to keep people safer and looks forward to examining it more closely in the weeks ahead as the legislation works its way to his desk," Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote to Westword in a statement.