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.”