A Massachusetts state district court judge and a court officer have both been charged with several counts related to their alleged interference with federal immigration agents’ attempt to arrest an undocumented man in a state courthouse.
The case marks a stunning development in the stand-off between many state judges frustrated at federal immigration agents’ heightened presence in the courthouses, and President Donald Trump’s insistence that almost any undocumented person is eligible to be arrested almost anywhere.
Judge Shelley Joseph and court officer Wesley MacGregor were charged Thursday on three counts: Conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice/aiding and abetting and obstruction of a federal proceeding/aiding and abetting. MacGregor was additionally charged with perjury.
“This case is about the rule of law,” U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said of the charges, as quoted by NBC News. “We cannot pick and choose the federal laws we follow, or use our personal views to justify violating the law. Everyone in the justice system – not just judges, but law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and defense counsel – should be held to a higher standard.”
On the other hand, in a statement quoted by several outlets, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the indictment “a radical and politically-motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts.”
“It is a bedrock principle of our constitutional system that federal prosecutors should not recklessly interfere with the operation of state courts and their administration of justice,” Healey wrote.
Joseph and MacGregor’s alleged aiding of the undocumented man’s escape from an ICE officer’s clutches via the back door of the Newton District Courthouse last April was detailed by The Boston Globe in December. A grand jury was convened the same month to examine the case.
In a 19-page indictment (read it here), the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston laid out how, when the case of the undocumented man — referred to as “A.S.” (“Alien subject”) — was heard in Joseph’s courtroom, Joseph ordered the plainclothes ICE officers in attendance to step outside.
In a subsequent recorded sidebar conversation between the judge, the assistant district attorney and A.S.’s defense attorney, the indictment showed, the defense attorney said “ICE is going to pick him up if he walks out the front door.”
“ICE is gonna get him?” Judge Joseph confirmed later. She then asked for the courtroom recorder to be turned off, “In violation of Massachusetts Rules of Court,” the indictment alleged.
When the recorder was turned back on, the defense attorney and prosecutor agreed that A.S. might not be the wanted drunk driving fugitive he was thought to have been (“I don’t think that there is enough tying him to the Pennsylvania warrant,” the prosecutor said) and the judge began to allow A.S. to leave the courtroom.
Then, A.S.’s defense attorney noted that he believed his client “has some property downstairs,” at which point Joseph allowed A.S. and his attorney to go downstairs, near the courthouse’s back door.
A court clerk noted: “There was a representative from, uh, ICE here in the Court […] to visit the lockup.”
“That’s fine,” Joseph responded. “I’m not gonna allow them to come in here. But he’s been released on this.”
At that point, Joseph allowed A.S. and his attorney, accompanied by court officer MacGregor, to go downstairs to the lockup. There, per the indictment, MacGregor opened the courthouse’s backdoor. A.S. left without the ICE officer’s knowledge, evading arrest.
The Boston Globe noted in its report that A.S. didn’t last long on the lam. He was arrested later in April. Now, Joseph and MacGregor will face a day in court, too.
The Trump era has seen a spike in courthouse arrests: Courthouses aren’t considered “sensitive locations,” like churches or schools, where arrests generally aren’t carried out. After the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, protested courthouse arrests in a March 2017 letter, an ICE spokesperson defended the practice to TPM: “[B]ecause courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, the safety risks for the arresting officers and for the arrestee are substantially diminished,” they said.
More recently, nearly 70 ex-judges urged ICE to stop courthouse arrests in a December letter.
“Surveys of law enforcement and legal service providers confirm that ICE’s reliance on immigration arrests in courthouses instills fear in clients and deters them from seeking justice in a court building,” they wrote. “Affidavits detail persons ‘terrified’ to request orders protecting them from violence or enforcing child support, to serve as witnesses, and to defend themselves.”
As a result of Thursday’s indictment, Joseph was suspended without pay.