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BBA Submits Letter in Support of Full Bench Review of Petition Seeking Writ of Protection Against Courthouse Immigration Arrests

March 30, 2018

Today, the BBA submitted a letter to Justice Elspeth B. Cypher of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), requesting a full-bench review of a recently-filed petition that asks the Court to ban U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from making civil arrests in and around courthouses.


Over a year ago, the issue of ICE targeting immigrants for arrest in and around courthouses came to national attention when ICE agents appeared at a courthouse to detain an undocumented woman who was seeking a protective order against her allegedly abusive boyfriend. The rise in accounts of these actions began following the release of new executive orders and instructions on immigration enforcement, which called for an increase in interior enforcement and the expansion of enforcement priorities to cover essentially all immigrants in the country without legal status.

A recent report from the Northeastern University School of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic highlights these increasing accounts, and harmful effects, of arrests of immigrants by ICE officials in and around Massachusetts courthouses. The report showed that ICE is indeed conducting arrests at numerous courthouses in the Commonwealth, and the data compiled in the report relates to ICE activity at twelve different courts. The report further concluded that “ICE is targeting both documented and undocumented immigrants, with no apparent regard for the seriousness of the pending charge. Many of those who have been arrested are longtime residents with U.S. citizen family members.”

It does not appear that immigration enforcement activities, including those in and around courthouses, are set to slow down in the near future. In fact, those jurisdictions that have previously extended protections to immigrants could very well see even more aggressive enforcement. In late September 2017, the Trump Administration announced and carried out enforcement activities specifically targeting regions where deportation officers were denied access to jails and prisons or where ICE detainers were not honored. In their statement on the raids, ICE officials specifically mentioned Massachusetts, in light of the SJC’s decision in Lunn v. Commonwealth, which held that honoring an ICE detainer would be tantamount to an arrest, and that no law in Massachusetts allows a law enforcement official to arrest someone without a warrant for an immigration violation, a civil offense. And in January of this year, ICE issued a directive that revealed its intent to continue these arrests, outlining a specific policy for actions in and around courthouses.

The Petition

On March 15, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (Lawyers’ Committee) filed a petition In the Matter of c. Doe & Others (SJ-2018-0119). The Petition asks that the Single Justice in the case, Justice Cypher, reserve and report the entire matter for full bench review, so that the SJC may grant a writ of protection that would ban civil arrests, including those civil immigration arrests conducted by ICE officials, for individuals in state courthouses or traveling to and from official matters with the courts.

Petitioners in the case include a juvenile defendant with a crucial noncitizen witness too fearful to appear in court, and seven noncitizen petitioners who are afraid to appear, including: 1) a mother seeking guardianship of her disabled daughter, 2) a tenant claiming to have been illegally evicted from her home, 3) a victim of an assault, 4) a mother entitled to unpaid child support, 5) a victim of domestic violence seeking a restraining order, 6) a long-time lawful permanent resident facing a criminal charge, and 7) a woman pursuing a claim of wrongful dismissal from her job.

The Petitioners “respectfully request that [the] court report the matter to the full bench, so the Court can rule on this matter of vital importance and grant a writ of protection from civil arrest.” Towards this end, the petitioners make four arguments:

  1. Under common law, all those present within the Massachusetts Trial Courts and their environs, and those having business before the courts who are coming to, attending, and returning from those courts, including petitioners, are privileged from civil arrest – including civil immigration arrest.
  2. The common law privilege against civil arrest in and around state courthouses falls squarely within the powers reserved to the states under the tenth amendment.
  3. Application of the common law privilege to civil immigration arrests is essential for noncitizens to exercise constitutional rights that can only be asserted by physical appearance in court.
  4. The Court should issue the writ of protection confirming that the Massachusetts common law privilege against arrest applies to civil immigration arrests as part of its broad, superintendence powers under G.L. C. 211, Section 3.

The BBA Letter

The BBA has been following the issue of ICE in courthouses since the reports first began over a year ago. Last April, at ABA Day in Washington, we had the chance to discuss our concerns with the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation, and we reported on passage of Resolution 10C, which called on Congress to codify courthouses as a “sensitive location” for immigration enforcement purposes, by the ABA House of Delegates at their Annual Meeting in August. We’ve been keeping such a close eye on this matter because of its connection to issues of access to justice and the administration of justice.

Our letter, which does not weigh in on the specific arguments in the petition, but urges for review by the full bench, points to this interest:

For decades the BBA has advocated fiercely for [access to justice and the fair administration of justice] by, among other things, producing reports that make the case for expanding access to attorneys to those who cannot afford it, and by calling for an adequately funded judiciary in the state budget—all because we recognize that fair and equal access to the courts is a core requirement of a well-functioning democracy.

Over the past year, many in the legal community, including bar associations, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and advocacy organizations and elected officials have expressed grave concerns about what ICE enforcement will mean for justice systems throughout the U.S.

For example, Washington Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in a letter to DHS that “when people are afraid to appear for court hearings, out of fear of apprehension by immigration officials, their ability to access justice is compromised. Their absence curtails the capacity of our judges, the clerks and court personnel to function effectively.” This chilling effect was also highlighted by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who wrote to then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly that “witnesses to violent crimes may decide to stay away from court and remain silent. Victims of domestic violence and other offenses may choose not to testify against their attackers. Children and families in need of court assistance may likewise avoid the courthouse. And defendants in state criminal matters may simply not appear.”

Here in Massachusetts, Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula M. Carey also expressed the potential adverse consequences of courthouse arrests by ICE, writing in a letter to an ICE Special Agent last February that:

“It is essential that [victims and litigants] be free to seek relief from the Court without fear that their presence in Court will be the cause of an immigration enforcement action.  If not, the unfortunate result will be that public safety will decrease, communities will become less safe and perpetrators of domestic violence will feel empowered to abuse their victims with impunity.  Further, individuals who currently come to our Courts to help themselves or a loved one in obtaining a civil commitment for detox or treatment will be reluctant to come forward if they fear immigration consequences. Any increased immigration enforcement in these civil matters would mean fewer applications, more withdrawn cases, and more defaults, resulting inevitably in violence, injustice, and threats to public safety.  In my view, it would ultimately affect the Court’s ability to carry out its mission to provide the protections guaranteed by the laws of this Commonwealth.”

Our letter highlights these concerns, shared by so many across the country, and in a statement on the letter, BBA President Mark Smith stated:

Given the BBA’s long tradition of working to expand and protect access to justice and the fair administration of justice, and the gravity of the issues at hand here, we believe it is important for this petition be reserved and reported to the full SJC bench.

We are grateful to have had the opportunity to weigh in on this important matter and will be following the development of the petition closely. Continue to watch this space for more updates!

 —Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association