Some lawyers ques­tion de­fender ser­vice’s re­sponse to Travis court­house ICE ar­rest

At­tor­neys fear email per­haps urged them to evade state, fed­eral law.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ryan Au­tullo and Tony Plo­het­ski rautullo@states­ tplo­het­ski@states­

A few hours after im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials took the rare step of ar­rest­ing an im­mi­grant at a Travis County court­house, a net­work of tax­payer-funded at­tor­neys ad­vised its mem­bers that it had two lo­ca­tions where they could take their clients, in case the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents showed up again.

Some at­tor­neys who work with the Cap­i­tal Area Pri­vate De­fender Ser­vice say the email they re­ceived March 3 amounted to their em­ployer sug­gest­ing they evade state and fed­eral law.

The memo, sent by di­rec­tor of holis­tic de­fense Kathryn Dyer, presents an “al­ter­na­tive plan for safety,” if “ICE agents are near the court­room,” urg­ing at­tor­neys to take clients to the de­fender ser­vice’s of­fices on the court­house’s sev­enth floor or at the nearby Bri- zen­dine House.

There has been no word of ad­di­tional ICE ar­rests at the court­house since that Fri­day two weeks ago, and the de­fender ser­vice says no at­tor­neys took clients to the of­fices.

But the memo shines light on a po­ten­tial con­flict for at­tor­neys with obli­ga­tions to serve clients but also to abide by laws against har­bor­ing im­mi­grants who are in the coun­try il­le­gally.

In Texas, hin­der­ing ap­pre­hen­sion or pros­e­cu­tion in some cases

is a third-de­gree felony pun­ish­able by two to 12 years in prison.

In a string of emails ob­tained by the Amer­i­can-States­man, sev­eral de­fense lawyers who are mem­bers of the Austin Crim­i­nal De­fense Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion raised con­cerns about the memo, fear­ing that if they fol­lowed the de­fender ser­vice’s ad­vice, they might be risk­ing in­car­cer­a­tion along­side the very clients they might try to pro­tect.

“ICE might make trou­ble for lawyers who ICE ob­serves (and maybe even pho­to­graphs) as­sist­ing a fugi­tive es­cape from ap­pre­hen­sion,” at­tor­ney Skip Davis warned. “I don’t put any­thing past th­ese fed­eral of­fi­cers.”

An­other at­tor­ney, Chito Vela, told the States­man he wants to pro­tect clients, but won­ders at what cost.

“I’m con­cerned for my client first and fore­most, but I’m con­cerned for my­self as well,” Vela said. “Any at­tor­ney that rep­re­sents un­doc­u­mented clients, there’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult ques­tions asked and there are go­ing to be dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances en­coun­tered.”

The fol­low­ing Mon­day, March 6, the de­fender ser­vice is­sued a clar­i­fi­ca­tion from Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Ira Davis: “Our email was in­tended to re­mind you that we are avail­able to coun­sel you and your clients on the im­mi­gra­tion con­se­quences of their cases, what to ex­pect from or plan for with re­gard to im­mi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings, and not to sug­gest that CAPDS or any at­tor­ney en­gage in some ex­trale­gal plan to sub­vert any law­ful process.”

Sur­prise visit

Ten­sion was al­ready high in Austin’s Latino com­mu­nity when the two plain­clothes ICE agents showed up at the Blackwell-Thur­man Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Cen­ter on March 3.

The agents first went to the civil court­house be­fore re­al­iz­ing their tar­get, Juan Coronilla-Guer­rero, was next door at the crim­i­nal court­house ap­pear­ing on mis­de­meanor charges for as­sault-fam­ily vi­o­lence and pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana. Coronilla-Guer­rero had been pre­vi­ously de­ported in 2008, court records show.

The of­fi­cers checked in with the bailiff in the court­room and then fol­lowed Coronilla-Guer­rero, 26, out of court and onto the el­e­va­tor, ac­cord­ing to his at­tor­ney, Daniel Betts. Once the el­e­va­tor reached the bot­tom floor, Betts told his client they needed to go back up to the third floor to take care of a mat­ter, in what the at­tor­ney would later say was an ef­fort to lose the of­fi­cers. But one of the of­fi­cers im­me­di­ately placed hand­cuffs on Coronilla-Guer­rero.

That ar­rest came just weeks after ICE con­ducted a four-day op­er­a­tion in Austin that re­sulted in the de­ten­tion of 51 un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, most of whom had no crim­i­nal his­tory.

The crack­down was viewed by many as re­tal­i­a­tion from the govern­ment over Sher­iff Sally Her­nan­dez’s pol­icy to refuse most of the re­quests from ICE to hold in­mates for ad­di­tional time in jail for fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion checks.

ICE of­fi­cials have called the ar­rests in Austin rou­tine; records show the Austin ac­tiv­ity was part of a na­tional en­force­ment op­er­a­tion that also took place in Los An­ge­les, Chicago, New York and At­lanta.

State District Judge Brenda Kennedy, the county’s pre­sid­ing crim­i­nal judge, said that based on fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the in­ci­dent, ICE agents fol­lowed the same pro­to­col as all law en­force­ment of­fi­cers when they ar­rested Coronilla-Guer­rero at the court­house.

Al­though some of­fi­cials voiced fears that the fed­eral of­fi­cers had con­ducted a sur­prise visit, Kennedy said the agents had no­ti­fied Travis county pros­e­cu­tors — as well as the bailiff — of their in­tent to ar­rest Coronilla-Guer­rero.

“There was noth­ing out of the course for the ar­rest in our build­ing,” she said. “I think it’s the en­vi­ron­ment we are in, and what was go­ing on at the time caused a lot of alarm.”

She said the ICE agents’ brief ap­pear­ance at the civil court­house had stirred con­cerns that ICE was go­ing to be­gin show­ing up unan­nounced to pro­ceed­ings in fam­ily law and pro­bate courts.

Kris­ten Dark, a spokes­woman for the sher­iff, said that al­though deputies at the county’s court­houses are there to pro­vide se­cu­rity, “we will not im­pede other law en­force­ment agen­cies from serv­ing a war­rant.”

Strik­ing a bal­ance

This week, the de­fender ser­vice held a brown-bag sem­i­nar at the court­house called “Im­mi­gra­tion: De­tec­tion and De­ten­tion: Rep­re­sent­ing Non-cit­i­zen Clients.”

The non­profit, which is funded mostly by the state, hired a full-time im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney in Novem­ber to as­sist de­fense at­tor­neys.

Asked about the de­fender ser­vice’s ini­tial di­rec­tive, Se­lena Al­varenga, pres­i­dent of the Austin Crim­i­nal De­fense Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion is­sued a state­ment: “ACDLA stands by the prin­ci­ple that we as crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­neys have a con­sti­tu­tional and pro­fes­sional duty to fully ad­vise our clients about the law sur­round­ing their cases, in­clud­ing any pos­si­ble im­mi­gra­tion-re­lated con­se­quences.

“We ac­knowl­edge that there is a clear line be­tween pro­vid­ing such ad­vice, and rec­om­mend­ing that our clients vi­o­late the law. As such, ACDLA does not sup­port in­ter­fer­ing with fed­eral ICE agents’ le­gal ap­pre­hen­sion of de­fen­dants sus­pected of hav­ing vi­o­lated im­mi­gra­tion laws, and our or­ga­ni­za­tion is not aware of any of our mem­ber at­tor­neys, nor any­one else in the de­fense com­mu­nity, be­hav­ing in such a man­ner.”

At­tor­ney Ge­orge Lobb, who spot­ted the ICE agents at the court­house on March 3, said that since then he has seen them at the court­house once — last week, when he ob­served two agents get­ting into a mini­van parked out­side.

“What were they do­ing there, I don’t know,” Lobb said.

Betts, who rep­re­sented Coronilla-Guer­rero on the as­sault and mar­i­juana charges, said he has de­vel­oped his own method for dodg­ing ICE of­fi­cials, and it’s per­fectly le­gal.

A court docket makes it easy for ICE to know the date and time a de­fen­dant is due in court, so Betts has be­gun throw­ing them off by han­dling mat­ters on dif­fer­ent days than those that are posted.

“That’s some­thing I feel a lit­tle more com­fort­able do­ing rather than se­cret­ing a per­son to the Brizen­dine House,” Betts said.


The his­toric Brizen­dine House down­town is home to an of­fice of the Cap­i­tal Area Pri­vate De­fender Ser­vice. An of­fi­cial with the or­ga­ni­za­tion sug­gested at­tor­neys take clients there if ICE agents are present at the court­house.

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