Attorneys for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) say a plain clothes immigration enforcement officer arrested a man outside a courthouse in Vancouver, Washington after eavesdropping on the man's conversation with his lawyer.
According to a complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 46-year-old Vancouver resident Jorge Luis Acebal-Coria showed up in Clark County District Court on January 24 for a hearing on a misdemeanor charge (third-degree malicious mischief, which is basically intentional property damage) at 8:30 AM. When Acebal-Coria's publicly appointed lawyer called his name to confer with him in the courtroom hallway, Acebal-Coria noticed a man dressed in plain clothes who followed them. In his DHS complaint, Acebal-Coria wrote that this man sat across from them as they spoke.
"The same man arrested me after I left the courthouse, and he told me he heard everything I said to my attorney," Acebal-Coria wrote.
NWIRP also says that the ICE officer, Jordan Vossler, wrote in his own arrest report that he was listening to Acebal-Coria's conversation in the courthouse. But Vossler, according to a section of the arrest report, said he only overheard Acebal-Coria's conversation with "court staff."
The section of the arrest report, furnished by NWIRP, reads: "As SUBJECT was approached by his defense attorney and Spanish translator he identified himself to court staff as Jorge ACEBAL and provided the date of birth of [REDACTED] 1972. As SUBJECT continued to speak to court staff as they communicated in Spanish and English in the public waiting room DO Vossler overheard SUBJECT inform court staff that he was not a United States Citizen and was born in Mexico."
NWIRP contends that Vossler was not eavesdropping on a conversation between Acebal-Coria and court staff, but between Acebal-Coria and Gregger Highberg, his lawyer.
Highberg told The Stranger that he didn't notice someone trying to listen in when speaking to Acabel-Coria at the time. But while Highberg stressed that he couldn't discuss what he and Acabel-Coria spoke about, he said he would find it very unusual for Acabel-Coria to have had a separate conversation at the same time with any kind of court staff regarding his immigration status.
"I think frustrating is the best word for it," Highberg said. "When an attorney speaks with their client, there's an expectation of privacy when they're intending for that conversation to be private. When privacy is compromised, it can lead to all sorts of unfortunate things, as evidenced with this incident."
According to NWIRP and Acebal-Coria's motion to dismiss ICE's case against him, this is what happened next:
"As Mr. Acebal left the courthouse, he got into his car and began to drive away. After driving about two blocks, Mr. Acebal noticed that an unmarked Ford Explorer behind him had activated its police lights. He heard, over the loudspeaker, a voice telling him to pull over, so he pulled his truck over on the side of the road. Mr. Acebal saw the same man from the courthouse, now wearing a vest that read 'ICE,' standing outside his vehicle, aiming a pistol at him."
The motion continues: "The officer also said that he had heard Mr. Acebal's conversation with his attorney in the courthouse, and knew that he was 'illegal.'"
That same day, Acebal-Coria was processed into the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where he's been ever since. A week after he was arrested, NWIRP says, Acebal-Coria suffered a stroke for which he had to be hospitalized.
Acebal-Coria and his lawyers now say that the deportation proceedings initiated against him should be thrown out because of the way the arrest went down. ICE, according to Acebal-Coria's lawyers, violated Acebal-Coria's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search, the Fifth Amendment right to due process, and his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when the officer eavesdropped on the courthouse conversation. Acebal-Coria and his lawyers additionally say that the man's arrest violated DHS's own rules of engagement.
Lori K. Haley, a spokesperson for ICE, said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
"However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations," Haley said by e-mail. "In DHS’s homeland security mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the Department’s mission, uphold our laws while continuing to provide our nation with safety and security."
Last year, Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote to the head of Homeland Security with concerns about immigration officers tracking people in and around local courthouses.
Immigration officials' presence "impede[s] the fundamental mission of our courts, which is to ensure due process and access to justice for everyone, regardless of their immigration status," Fairhurst wrote. She also asked DHS to designate courthouses as "sensitive locations," like schools and churches, which would require ICE officials to get a higher level of permission to track their targets.
Advocates have pointed to another potential consequence of ICE tracking people at courthouses: Victims of crime may be targeted. After ICE detained a domestic violence survivor at a courthouse in El Paso, Texas, some police chiefs have said they've noticed a decrease in crime reporting from immigrants.
In January, however, ICE issued a policy on tracking and arresting people in courthouses, which didn't designate them as sensitive locations. In some ways, ICE doubled down on its prerogative to arrest people in and around courthouses, saying that "courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails." (This, as PBS noted, is a not-so-subtle dig at municipalities, like King County, that don't respond to federal detainer requests.) Instead, ICE offered to "conduct enforcement actions discreetly to minimize their impact on court proceedings," but only "when practicable."
Acebal-Coria's next hearing in immigration court is this coming Friday, where a federal judge will consider his motion to throw out deportation proceedings based on his courthouse arrest.