Federal immigration agents arrested a man at the Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas on Friday morning Sept. 20, setting off a chain reaction as court officials try to determine the man's identity and why they weren't alerted to the arrest by courthouse security staff.
The incident took place just as the courthouse was opening to the public. It was first made public by County Supervisor Luis Alejo on his Twitter feed.
"Having these arrests take place as people are coming to a courthouse, it creates fear in the community and it's going to dissuade people from coming if ICE is using the court system as an easy way to make arrests," Alejo says. "And after talking to court security, this is not the first time it's happened. It's becoming a pattern."
According to Court Administrative Officer Chris Ruhl, two agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement entered the courthouse at 7:45am Friday and sat outside Department 7, the courtroom of Judge Robert Burlison, on the building's first floor. A few minutes later, a man entering the courthouse was stopped by three ICE agents as he approached the security screening station.
"It was apparently inside the courthouse, but I'm trying to get the security footage to confirm that, or whether they stopped him before he came inside," Ruhl says.
The ICE agents took the unidentified man into custody. Ruhl says witnesses report no excessive force was used and the man complied.
Court officials now are trying to determine the man's identity and why he was at the courthouse—if he was there as a defendant, a victim, a witness or to offer support to a friend or family member involved in a case.
"It's a real concern" that ICE arrested someone at the courthouse, Ruhl says. The Monterey County Superior Court aligns with the stance of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who has publicly urged ICE officials to refrain from making arrests in and around state courthouses.
"When ICE makes an arrest at or near a courthouse, we are concerned about the impacts it has on access to justice and the impacts it has on people coming to court because of this possibility," Ruhl says. "Based on what we understand the law to be, there does not appear to be anything we can do about arrests made outside the courthouse. It's not crystal clear about arrests made inside the building but not in a courtroom. We don't even know if we can prevent them from making arrests in the hallways."
Ruhl says he was informed of the arrest by officials at the County Administrative Office—the ICE agents walked the detainee past the administrative building and to a car waiting in the parking lot—and he's trying to figure out why.
"We have asked both our contract security staff and the bailiffs to notify the administration as soon as they are aware of these types of arrests," he says. "We didn't find out about this one until the county told us. We have told them they need to inform us immediately and that way we can create a record."
According to Alejo, this is the third instance in the past year of ICE making an arrest at the courthouse. In a previous incident, ICE agents arrested a woman outside the courthouse, then mocked her as they took her away.
"In a previous arrest, court security told me they saw a woman pleaded to be let go. They put her in the car, rolled down the window and told her, 'Say goodbye to your husband' before they drove off," Alejo says.
"As county officials, we're limited on what we can do, but we can speak out and let people know this is happening, and law enforcement should be aware of it as well," Alejo says. "To hear there have been previous incidents, it's troubling to me. Courts should be safe for all to come to."
Alejo says if he can obtain the security camera footage of the detention, he plans to post it to social media.