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News / Clark County News

Civil rights complaint filed after Vancouver man’s ICE arrest

Complaint alleges ICE officer violated Jorge Luis Acebal-Coria’s attorney-client privilege

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor
Published: April 3, 2018, 12:54pm

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a civil rights complaint Tuesday on behalf of a Vancouver man who was detained earlier this year, alleging that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer eavesdropped on a conversation between the man and his defense attorney that occurred in the Clark County Courthouse.

The Seattle-based legal services organization filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. It alleges that the ICE agent violated Jorge Luis Acebal-Coria’s attorney-client privilege.

“The United States Supreme Court has pointed out that the attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest recognized privileges for confidential communications,” said Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Tacoma office, in a written statement. “It is a fundamental principle of our Constitution that clients should be able to communicate about their case with their attorneys without government intrusion.”

In addition to the complaint, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has filed a motion with the U.S. Immigration Court in Tacoma to dismiss Acebal-Coria’s deportation case. His next hearing is Friday.

Lori K. Haley, ICE spokeswoman for the Western Region, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

“However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations. In DHS’s homeland security mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the department’s mission, uphold our laws while continuing to provide our nation with safety and security,” Haley wrote in an email.

According to records filed in Clark County District Court, Acebal-Coria, 45, was charged with third-degree malicious mischief for allegedly throwing a can of air freshener at another vehicle in June 2016. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was taken into custody in November 2017.

Acebal-Coria arrived at District Court on the morning of Jan. 24 to respond to the misdemeanor criminal case. His defense attorney came into the courtroom, called his name and they stepped into the hallway to speak. Acebal-Coria said he noticed a man in plain clothes follow them out of the courtroom, according to a press release from Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

In his complaint, Acebal-Coria stated that he sat on a bench with his attorney and an interpreter, and the man in plain clothes sat across from them and began listening to their conversation.

Acebal-Coria left the courthouse after his hearing and was subsequently arrested by ICE officers. During his arrest, the man that had followed Acebal-Coria inside the courthouse reportedly told him, “I heard you talking; you’re illegal,” the press release states.

That man was identified as ICE officer Jordan Vossler, according to Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Vossler filed a report for Acebal-Coria’s deportation in which he relied on information he obtained while eavesdropping on Acebal-Coria’s conversation with his attorney, the organization alleges.

A segment of the report included in Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s press release states: “As subject continued to speak to court staff as they communicated in Spanish and English in the public waiting room… Vossler overheard subject inform court staff that he was not a United States citizen and was born in Mexico. He continued to inform court staff that he entered the United States 23 years ago….”

Upon his arrest, Acebal-Coria was taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. He suffered a stroke about a week later and was hospitalized. However, he remains in custody, according to the press release.

“Detention has been stressful on many levels. I look out the window and feel that my life is passing me by,” Acebal-Coria said in the press release. “This case is important so that other people are aware of this conduct by ICE officers and know that they can fight back.

“It’s already intimidating to go to a courthouse; knowing that ICE was eavesdropping on my conversation with my lawyer makes me even more scared to go to court in the future,” he added.

Associate Attorney Gregger Highberg with Vancouver Defenders — who represented Acebal-Coria in his District Court case — said Tuesday that he learned of the incident from Acebal-Coria’s immigration attorney. He was unaware that anyone had been following his client or listening to their conversation at the time, he said.

“It’s very frustrating is probably the best way to characterize it. We have an attorney-client privilege with our clients. When we speak with them, we expect (those conversations) to be private and that no one is listening, even in the cases where an interpreter is involved,” Highberg said.

There are no private interview rooms in District Court, he said, so when attorneys need to talk with their clients, they pull them aside in the hallway.

Highberg said the civil rights complaint has “certainly drawn attention to this being an issue. …It sure has heightened my awareness.”

“If they’re going to be seemingly eavesdropping on our conversations and infringing on our clients’ rights … that’s definitely hindering the (judicial) process,” he said.

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Because Acebal-Coria has been in federal detention, he missed his next District Court appearance. As a result, the Vancouver City Attorney’s Office has filed a charge of bail jumping against him.

City Prosecutor Kevin McClure said Tuesday that he doesn’t know enough about ICE’s practices to comment on the complaint. But he said, “It’s certainly not something that is coordinated with our office.

“It’s generally not something we even know about. If for some reason someone is detained and doesn’t show up for court, we generally don’t know the reason they didn’t show up for court,” McClure added.

His office doesn’t inquire about a defendant’s citizenship status, he said, unless it is brought up by the defense attorney, which sometimes happens during the negotiation of a case.