Jackson Hole, WY News

A simple motion made in Teton County Circuit Court on Feb. 11 triggered a complex argument over immigration not often heard in state court.

Elisabeth Trefonas, senior assistant public defender, asked Judge Jim Radda to allow her client to appear by phone, rather than in person, when he changes his plea at his next court hearing.

Teton County Deputy Prosecutor Clark Allan firmly objected.

“The defendant lives in the town of Jackson, so the state is happy to have this set for a change of plea, but he can appear,” Allan told the court.

“Is there a particular reason why you want him to personally appear?” Radda asked Allan.

“Yes, your honor,” Allan said. “That’s how our justice system works. He can come to court and plead guilty or be sentenced. When they live in the community that is how it works.”

But Radda pointed out how a visit to the courthouse could play out for the defendant, who is undocumented.

“The reason this request is made sometimes is certain people are afraid of getting arrested on the courthouse steps by the ICE authorities,” Radda said. “If I require him to appear in a case where the rule says with his written consent it can be done by mail, I think I am interjecting myself in the immigration debate, and I don’t want to do that.

“I think I should just be neutral, and the rule is just so liberal.”

The law states that judges can allow defendants to change pleas by mail or by phone with the defendant’s consent, Radda said.

“If that is acceptable, I move that we all stay home and appear by Skype,” Allan said. “My argument would be if we give special treatment to people who live in town you are interjecting yourself into the immigration debate. I think we should just treat everyone the same. We should just prosecute our cases, adjudicate our cases and let the chips fall.”

Allan said the only defendants who should be able to appear by phone are the ones who don’t live close.

“We make an exception sometimes for people who live a long, long, long way away,” Allan said. “Otherwise, they should be here.”

Allan said a person’s citizenship status should not be considered as an exception to appearing in court.

“I have a problem with the idea that someone’s status that they are illegal and they may be arrested allows them to not come to court,” Allan said. “Our system has been running for a couple hundred years on the idea that people come to court to deal with their problems, not to avoid them.”

Trefonas said that’s exactly her point.

“The client wants to handle their fines and fees with this county and with this state,” Trefonas told the court. “They shouldn’t have to put themselves in a situation where they are threatened, arrested, detained and deported to make sure they are handling their local affairs.”

Trefonas’ client got a few citations for no driver’s license and one citation for no insurance, she said. She worked out a potential plea deal under which her client will plead guilty to a few of the charges and the prosecutor’s office will dismiss the remaining citations.

He is trying to pay his fines and move on, she said, and he shouldn’t be subjected to possible federal detainment for that.

Citizenship status, according to Sabrina King, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, shouldn’t even be mentioned in local courts.

“Bringing up someone’s immigration status when it has nothing to do with the case, frankly, is disturbing,” King said. “Under no circumstances is this person asking for special treatment. They are just trying to comply with local laws.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have made arrests at the Teton County Courthouse. And ICE appearances at local courthouses have increased in recent years.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has, for some time, had established practices in place related to civil immigration enforcement inside courthouses,” according to ICE.gov. “However, the increasing unwillingness of some jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the safe and orderly transfer of targeted aliens inside their prisons and jails has necessitated additional at-large arrests, and ICE felt it was appropriate to more formally codify its practices in a policy directive that its law enforcement professionals and external stakeholders can consult when needed.”

ICE agents shouldn’t be near courthouses, King asserted.

“It makes communities more dangerous when people don’t feel like they have access to law enforcement or the courts,” King said.

Radda ultimately granted Trefonas’ request to allow her client to appear by phone.

“With the written consent of the defendant I may permit it, and I am going to permit it,” Radda said. “As far as I am concerned, we are proceeding in his absence, but that is what the rule allows.”

Contact Emily Mieure at 732-7066, courts@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGcourts.

Emily Mieure covers criminal justice and breaking news. She has reported for WDRB TV in Louisville, Ky., WFIE TV in Evansville, Ind., and WEIU TV in Charleston, Ill.

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(7) comments

Rick Murray

"The law states that judges can allow defendants to change pleas by mail or by phone with the defendant’s consent", Radda said. Looks like the public defender has carried out her responsibilities on behalf of her client. It is not her job to help ICE enforce the immigration laws. For those who don't like the law, lobby your state legislators to get it changed.

Cody Brinton

Absolute bull-- Radda needs to step down--- protecting someone that is illegal is aiding and abetting right? Drag this defendant to court and call ICE! Its his duty to uphold all of our laws-- SMH

Chad guenter

Cody: The modern AmeriKan just-us system is a broken, corrupt charade. It would be one of the biggest jokes in government if it didn't hold people LIVES in it's diseased claws.

Sofia Jarmillo Staff
Sofia Jaramillo

A comment has been removed. Please use your real name. - JHNG Producer

Chad guenter

This "Judge" should be removed from his position. ABSOLUTELY disregarding the law, how in the world can anyone look at this robe wearing politician as an agent of justice?????

Comment deleted.
Ken Chison

They would love nothing more than to make JH a sanctuary City. That is what all the Cali transplants would love to see. Makes them feel more at home, and labor is cheap. So we have an illegal that has obviously done an illegal act, and they want special treatment? Lawyers must have no self respect, in my mind. What is wrong with telling the client to take their chance at being deported, and then apply for citizenship the correct way. This attorney is condoning bad behavior and is only wanting to get their name in the spotlight. The fake news networks should be showing up any day now, to tell us once again how bad white males are.

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