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ICE agents arrest 3 at Sonoma County courthouse

Federal immigration agents arrested at least three people Tuesday at the Sonoma County Superior Court campus, preventing them from appearing before judges for pending criminal matters and prompting unified outcry from criminal justice and court officials who condemned the action as undermining due process and local authority.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents made the arrests in defiance of a new state law barring civil immigration arrests at California courthouses, a statute that does not strip federal agents of their authority to conduct missions but makes clear the state’s intent. The action also comes four days after U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials announced the agency will participate in ICE’s escalating immigration enforcement across the country in jurisdictions with sanctuary policies, and called out cities including San Francisco.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch and Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi condemned the arrests for undermining public safety and the fragile yet crucial trust between immigrants and local authorities. County counsel Bruce Goldstein called ICE’s actions “lawless” because the agents had no judicial warrants, in violation of state law.

“It’s now going to put total fear in the community,” Pozzi said in an interview. “People aren’t going to come to court. Victims will refuse to show up. Witnesses will refuse to show up … cases will have to get dismissed.”

Pozzi, who worked with staff from U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson’s office to get the names of individuals who were detained, said she wasn’t able to make them public because of attorney-client privilege rules barring release of information without a client’s permission.

Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the courthouse arrests run the risk of eroding trust between public safety officials and immigrants.

“If the immigrant community feels less safe and afraid, they are less willing to communicate and witnesses less likely to come forward. That puts all of us at risk.”

“The arrest and detention actions of ICE at courthouses like ours interrupts the judicial process and undermines equal access to justice,” Presiding Judge Bradford DeMeo said.

ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor on Tuesday declined to provide details about the law enforcement actions taken at the Sonoma County courthouse, saying the agency could only provide information about specific people when requested by name and other identifying information.

ICE officials called local laws prohibiting immigration arrests at courthouses “ironic” in a written response to The Press Democrat’s questions. The response, which quoted agency officials and was provided by Moor, emphasized Congress’ mission for the agency, keeping “criminal aliens out of our country.”

“Despite attempts to prevent ICE officers from doing their jobs, ICE will continue to carry out its mission to uphold public safety and enforce immigration law, and consider carefully whether to refer those who obstruct our lawful enforcement efforts for criminal prosecution,” according to Moor’s statement.

Moor would not confirm whether Tuesday’s actions in Sonoma County were part of the broader deployment of specialized border patrol agents being sent inland to help enforce federal immigration laws in jurisdictions with sanctuary polices.

“ICE conducts targeted law enforcement activity on a daily basis, regardless of the compliance or policies of a state or local jurisdiction,” Moor said. “Due to law enforcement sensitivities and officer safety, ICE does not discuss planned operations or specific resource allocation.”

No data about how often ICE agents arrest people at the Sonoma County courthouse was immediately available from local or federal authorities. Anecdotally, local immigrant advocates and court officials said it is uncommon, though none could point to a specific recent instance in which an immigrant had been arrested at the courthouse.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly called out California for flouting his hard-line approach to immigration enforcement, a defining policy of his presidency. The 2017 California Values Act bars local resources from being used to assist federal immigration enforcement.

In October 2017 amid a wildfire crisis in Sonoma County, acting director of ICE, Thomas Homan, launched the county’s sanctuary polices into national headlines by calling out the Sheriff’s Office for not notifying the agency that an undocumented immigrant and arson suspect was at the jail, claiming the agency “left (the) community vulnerable to dangerous individuals.” Then-Sheriff Rob Giordano blasted Homan’s statement as inflammatory and inaccurate, wrongly injecting politics of immigration at a time when the community was grappling with a massive disaster.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares said that regardless of whether Tuesday’s arrests represent part of the Trump administration’s escalation of hard-line immigration tactics, they should serve as a signal that Sonoma County leaders must prepare for worst-case scenarios, such as children coming home from school to find their parents gone. The City Council in 2017 declared itself an “indivisible city” and adopted policies prohibiting Santa Rosa employees from collaborating with federal civil immigration enforcement.

“I consider it a retaliation for Santa Rosa being a sanctuary city - and that’s not OK,” Olivares said. “The expertise of specialized border patrol units are better utilized toward violent criminals. That’s what should happen, but not to cause fear in communities and undo the work that’s been done to make people feel safe and secure.”

All three people were arrested by agents wearing plainclothes before 8:30 a.m. when court proceedings begin each day. Sonoma County sheriff’s officials said a man identifying himself as an ICE agent alerted dispatch at 7:45 a.m. they were at the courthouse conducting a mission.

Sheriff’s personnel did not participate in the arrests, a spokesman said.

Witnesses to one arrest said a federal agent in plainclothes confronted a man in the parking lot, at first putting out his hand as if offering a handshake then grabbing the man’s elbow before unzipping his own jacket to reveal a federal law enforcement badge, Pozzi said.

In another case, a public defender and an investigator confronted an agent leading a 37-year-old man to an unmarked law enforcement vehicle, demanding information about the affiliation of the agent, who wore no uniform, and the name of the man being taken away, Pozzi said.

That man had been detained in a second floor hallway of the courthouse building before he could attend his court hearing, she said.

His lawyer, private defense attorney Martin Woods, said his client was a local carpenter who was expecting to resolve his criminal case Tuesday. The man had been arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence and misdemeanor drunken driving charges stemming from an incident involving a girlfriend, and he had since been trying to take responsibility for the incident, Woods said.

“We were going to resolve the case this morning as a misdemeanor and have him put into programs and classes to help him,” Woods said, noting the misdemeanor charge alone would not be a deportable offense.

The man’s employer was waiting in the courtroom and willing to speak on his behalf when he didn’t show up, said Woods, who declined to identify him because of attorney-client privilege.

Judge Shelly Averill postponed the hearing until March 3 while the parties determine how to proceed.

“The situation is outrageous,” Woods said. “Think of the chilling effect for people who want to come to court and resolve things. Think of somebody who is perhaps undocumented here who is a witness in a case and they don’t want to come to court for fear of (immigration) arrest.”

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Misti Wood said they hoped to reassure the public that deputies do not enforce federal immigration laws and “still want people to call us if they need help.”

Ravitch also said she hoped people will still turn to local law enforcement and the resources at the Sonoma County Family Justice Center for services.

“We have worked so hard to gain the trust of the immigrant community,” Ravitch said in an email. “We will continue to do our best to provide a safe place to come where they can seek justice, whether (they are) an individual charged with a crime, a victim who is ready to speak out or a witness who is willing to come forward.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220.

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