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Safer to Testify - By Nuala Sawyer - August 31, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Safer to Testify

Officers arrest a protester outside of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services building in downtown San Francisco during a rally by immigrant organizations to protest ICE raids Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

California’s Senate took a step toward better supporting immigrants this week, approving a bill to protect them from “irrelevant disclosures” of their legal status in an open court. S.B. 785 was a labor of love from San Francisco’s politicians: Senator Scott Wiener introduced it, with Assembly-member Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (from San Diego). Assembly-member David Chiu was a co-author, and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon supported it, as well.S.B. 785 was a labor of love from San Francisco’s politicians: Senator Scott Wiener introduced it, with Assembly-member Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (from San Diego). Assembly-member David Chiu was a co-author, and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon supported it, as well.

Under the proposed amendments, any discussion or questioning surrounding a witness, victim, or defendant’s immigration status must first be approved by a judge. In the past, immigrants without legal documentation to be in the U.S. risked exposure when testifying in court — which deterred many from making statements unless legally obligated to do so.

This risk can be stressful, particularly for victims, and San Francisco’s courts are no exception. Despite the city’s sanctuary-city ordinance — which prohibits city employees from notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement of residents’ statuses — the threat of deportation can still feel real. Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s office has been criticized in the past for using tough tactics in court, terrifying witnesses on the stand. He called the complaints “ridiculous” in an article in the Chronicle earlier this year, stating that interrogating witnesses is “doing our jobs as defense attorneys.”

“It has nothing to do with my support of immigrant rights,” he said. Consistent with his statements, Adachi did support the bill.

But regardless of tactics, the fear is there, and can disrupt the functionality of the courts.

“With the climate of fear in the immigrant community, springing inadmissible evidence on the jury about immigration status is an underhanded tactic that dissuades testimony,” Gascon says. “That’s why this measure is so important: It will keep the doors to California’s courtrooms open for everyone and ensure the fair administration of justice.”

And the timing couldn’t be better. The bill’s approval came just three days after President Donald Trump pardoned Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was convicted last year of criminal contempt, after commanding that his deputies racially profile Latinos, stopping them to investigate their legal status without reasonable suspicion to do so. The 85-year-old was also a “Birther” and vocal Trump proponent during his presidential campaign.

Wiener blasted the move in a statement on Monday.

“President Trump sent a shockwave through the immigrant community and this country by pardoning a convicted criminal who illegally profiled and jailed people based solely on suspicions about their immigration status,” he said. “Today, the California Senate sent a message to our immigrant neighbors that unlike this President, we stand with you in working to keep our communities safe. Making immigrants fearful that testifying in court may get you deported isn’t how we ensure justice and public safety. California’s courts are houses of justice, not ad hoc detention centers where ICE agents can round up law-abiding immigrants.”

California’s Senate approved the bill by a 32-7 vote. It now moves to the Assembly for consideration before landing on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. But with threats to immigrants increasing under the current administration, there is little time to waste. It’s been assigned an urgency statute, which means that if Brown approves the legislation, it will become effective immediately.

In the meantime, immigrants of all statuses continue to show up in California’s courts. Next week, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, accused of shooting Kate Steinle on Pier 14 in 2015, will appear before a judge. His undocumented status in the country has already been disclosed, but any future witnesses in the case could be protected if the bill becomes a law.