Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered Sacramento Superior Court last week and handcuffed an immigrant, making an arrest inside a courtroom that is considered a first of its type in the state, one that could have a chilling effect across California.
“This will turn the judicial system on its head,” Sacramento attorney Charles Pacheco said.
Pacheco said Wednesday’s arrest happened as a Sacramento Superior Court arraignment for his client, Yovanny Ontiveros-Cebreros, was concluding. Pacheco said ICE agents placed his client in handcuffs.
Pacheco said he asked Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown to step in, and Brown placed Ontiveros-Cebreros in the area behind the bar that’s designated for defendants who are in custody before proceeding to hear another 10 cases.
After Brown concluded hearing his other cases, he entered his chambers only to return to the bench and say that ICE had a warrant for Ontiveros-Cebreros’ arrest, Pacheco said. Brown was “puzzled,” Pacheco said.
“The judge was weak — he had no control of his courtroom, and allowed the federal government to come into his court,” Pacheco said. “He (Brown) just wanted to neutralize the situation, so he could figure out what was going on, and then he felt that it was justified that the (ICE) guy said there was a warrant for illegal re-entry.”
Brown responded to Pacheco’s comments in a statement to The Sacramento Bee, explaining that judges do not prevent lawful arrest warrants from being enforced.
“Remanding on an outstanding arrest warrant issued by another jurisdiction is the province of the Sheriff’s department,” Brown said. “It happens on a regular basis, particularly in large felony arraignments courts. The court was mindful of the concerns raised by counsel about a chilling effect on undocumented persons coming to court – one articulated far more thoughtfully by the Chief Justice of California – but such concerns could not impede enforcing a lawfully-issued warrant at the moment.”
A year ago, state Supreme Court chief justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye forcefully called on federal immigration agents to stop looking in California’s courtrooms for people they suspect are living in the country illegally in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who is now chief of staff for President Donald Trump.
“Enforcement policies that include stalking courthouses and arresting undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose no risk to public safety, are neither safe nor fair,” she wrote.
And even though Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the March 16, 2017, letter “courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” she acknowledged at the time that neither she, nor California, has the authority to force immigration authorities to stay away.
Since Trump took office, people – those here legally and undocumented immigrants – are less likely to report crimes, to come forward as witnesses to crimes and to seek help if they are victims of crimes, Cantil-Sakauye said. That impedes public safety, infringes the constitutional rights of individuals and their access to justice and has led to a “tide of rising violence,” she said.
“If no one ever speaks out, then we can never be the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Cantil-Sakauye said later at an August 2017 Senate panel discussion.
ICE spokesman Richard A. Rocha said the agency “made a criminal arrest at the Sacramento Superior Courthouse on Wednesday pursuant to a criminal arrest warrant issue by a federal magistrate judge.”
“As this is an ongoing federal criminal case, no additional information is available at this time,” he said.
Pacheco said no one saw the warrant on Wednesday in court.
Katherine Carlson, an attorney working in the Sacramento Public Defender’s Office, said she witnessed Wednesday’s arrest. She said ICE agents were being “obstructionists.”
Ontiveros-Cebreros had been released on $115,000 bail Tuesday, and on Wednesday he entered a not-guilty plea to two felony charges. One charge was for possession of a controlled substance and the second charge was for possession of a controlled substance for sale.
Pacheco said ICE agents are obtaining information on people who post bail and then show up to court to detain them.
ICE agents have been making arrests inside the Fresno County courthouse for about a month and recently made an appearance at the Tulare County Superior Court.
Alex Gonzalez, a spokesperson for NorCal Resist, said the arrest is exactly like what happened in Fresno.
“It’s enraging,” he said. “It’s an ongoing issue.”
The undocumented individuals he’s spoken with are shocked but not surprised, he said, adding that the arrest will spread fear among community members.
NorCal Resist does not have a protest planned at this time, but Gonzalez said several nonprofits will provide the community with watchdog and know-your-rights training. The group strongly encourages undocumented individuals not to go into court alone. Go with someone from the area, Gonzalez said.
“We stand with them no matter what,” he said. “It’s liberation not detention.”
In Wednesday’s action, Carlson said a deputy from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office told one of the federal agents that “they would be able to pick up” the defendant from the basement at the courthouse. Sheriff’s spokesman Shaun Hampton referred questions to the arresting agency.
Carlson said the arrest might be legally correct, but has a chilling effect: “This stuff shouldn’t be happening.”
“There were some of those people sitting in court watching this thing go down,” she said, referring to others who are undocumented and might be witnesses or victims.
Pacheco said, “I’m not going to walk my clients into a trap.”
Mickey Sampson, another lawyer at the public defender’s office, said it was a “big surprise” to have ICE in the courthouse.
“We are not used to ICE in our courthouse, so this is kind of a big deal,” he said.