One minute Vancouver attorney Darquise Cloutier was exchanging pleasantries with her former client outside the Clark County Courthouse, and the next, she watched as he was handcuffed and whisked away to a van by plainclothes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“It just shocked me so much. I was just prying for information, and they were just not nice,” she said of the agents, who refused to disclose their names.
The incident, which occurred in April, unfolded outside the west entrance of the courthouse.
Cloutier’s experience is one example of an uptick in immigration enforcement around courthouses, nationwide. The courthouse arrests — under the direction of the Trump administration to crack down on illegal immigration — have elicited harsh criticism from attorneys and judges who argue that the practice interferes with the criminal justice system.
Cloutier said her former client — whom she represented in family court and did not feel comfortable sharing his name — was at the courthouse for a trial readiness hearing in a felony domestic violence assault case. He had no prior criminal convictions.
They stopped to chat as they crossed paths. Suddenly, a man ran toward them, calling her former client’s name. He turned to see who it was and was placed under arrest.
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Cloutier said she thought it was a joke at first but quickly realized otherwise.
Her former client primarily speaks Spanish and has trouble with English, she said, so she decided to stick around to see what she could find out.
Several other men wearing plainclothes, save for one, surrounded them. Only one presented a badge identifying them as ICE agents, Cloutier said, and none would say why her former client was being arrested.
“I remember saying, ‘Hey, he hasn’t been convicted of anything,’ ” she said and repeatedly asked for their names. But the only information they would disclose was that they were from the Portland ICE office.
“My impression was that the others were in regular clothes in order to make it easier for them to be stalking around the courthouse, looking for people they thought were not here legally. They also made it clear to me they were aware of when cases were on the docket,” Cloutier said.
The agents searched the man, while he was handcuffed, and allowed him to give Cloutier his car keys, because his vehicle was parked near her office. She later moved his vehicle to her parking lot and had someone contact his wife, who was understandably upset, she said.
“I just felt awful, in part, because he was just the nicest, gentlest young man and worked like heck all of the time to support his family,” Cloutier said. “I thought, ‘This was too bad.’ ”
The courthouse arrests were addressed earlier this year by Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst. She sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in March, expressing concerns and possible solutions — including meeting to discuss the issue and encouraging the department to designate courthouses as “sensitive locations” to limit enforcement activities. Schools, places of worship and hospitals are designated as “sensitive locations.”
In the letter, she cited reports from attorneys and judges about ICE agents’ increased presence.
“These developments are deeply troubling because they impede the fundamental mission of our courts, which is to ensure due process and access to justice for everyone, regardless of immigration status,” she wrote.
Reports of such enforcement activities came from courthouses in Clark, Clallam, Cowlitz, King, Skagit and Mason counties at the time.
ICE says it determines where and how to carry out enforcement operations on a case-by-case basis. It takes into account the “target’s criminal history, safety considerations, the viability of the leads on the individual’s whereabouts, and any sensitivities involving the prospective arrest location,” Lori K. Haley, ICE spokeswoman for the Western Region, wrote in an email.
“It’s important to note that many of the arrest targets ICE has sought out at or near courthouses are foreign nationals who have prior criminal convictions in the U.S.,” Haley wrote, later adding that “because 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 inside such a facility are substantially diminished.”
Haley said that in years past, undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions would be turned over to ICE by local law enforcement upon their release from jail, based on ICE detainers. But many local agencies no longer honor ICE detainers.
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik said he hadn’t heard of anyone being picked up by ICE agents in or near the courthouse, nor had some other court officials who met in April.
“To our knowledge, we are not experiencing that issue to any greater degree than we have in years past,” he said. However, he added that the obvious concern of such enforcement activities is that victims or witnesses, worried about their legal status, may not make themselves available “to seek justice in cases.”
Vancouver immigration attorney Mercedes Riggs said she’s seen ICE agents outside the courthouse, particularly in the spring.
“It makes people afraid to access our judicial system, and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said.
Criminal defense attorney Brian Walker, who’s represented undocumented immigrants, agrees.
“We are putting them in a no-win situation. It’s the classic between a rock and a hard place. If you want to remain a good citizen, you will appear on this date. But if you show up, there’s a chance ICE will pick you up. I know every single one of them is scared to death of it,” Walker said.
He argues that courthouses should be off limits.
The last that Cloutier heard, her former client had posted bail and was released from ICE custody months after his arrest. But she said she does not know the outcome of his case.
She believes ICE agents have been making arrests in waves.
“I don’t know if it’s illegal. But I don’t like it, because courthouses are supposed to be safe places,” she said.