The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency has made it a point to arrest people when they drop off their kids at school, at hospitals, and when they’re just trying to get their wallets back. One of its major targets has been court buildings, an issue which the New York City Democratic Socialists of America and other groups are organizing around. But as one incident showed yesterday, the New York state courts aren’t interested in getting in-person feedback.
Elijah Stevens, a volunteer organizer for the New York City DSA who lives in Brooklyn, explained to Splinter that the group and its coalition partners had gathered “about 4,000 petition signatures” asking New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to restrict ICE agents from courthouses. “This is having a chilling effect on people reporting crimes, so people are less likely to report abuse by domestic partners or landlords,” he said. “We’d love to see a change to this.”
A group of seven activists attempted to deliver those signatures to DiFiore’s office at the Office of Court Administration building in Manhattan yesterday afternoon. “We didn’t necessarily anticipate [DiFiore] being there, but we wanted to bring them to her office,” Stevens said.
But almost as soon as they got there, Stevens said, they were met with resistance from court officers. “As soon as we got to the floor, we were very quickly surrounded by court officers who told us that we weren’t allowed to be on that floor,” he said.
“My role was to stream the delivery to let all of the people who canvassed to see the product of their efforts,” Jake, a Central Brooklyn DSA member who took the video, told Splinter. (He said he did not want to use his last name for fear of professional reprisals.) “Basically, one of the guards lunged at me without telling me why, and shoved me against the wall and took my phone...in retrospect, I would say I was physically assaulted by one of Judge Janet DiFiore’s security guards.”
The DSA chapter posted a video of the incident on Facebook, which you can watch below.
“One of our friends who’s a lawyer said, ‘Why are you doing this, what’s the rule about recording,’ and the [security guard] said, ‘You can’t record in courts,’” Stevens added. “And the lawyer said, ‘This isn’t a court.’”
Stevens said the activists hoped to deliver the signatures to a receptionist, but were told by the guards that they had to hand the signatures to them. “They said they would deliver them but we don’t expect them to end up on anyone’s desk,” he told Splinter. “They’re more interested in silencing activists and the 4,000 New Yorkers who want to see change in our courts than getting the message to our chief judge.”
New York state courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen disputed the activists’ version of the incident. “With regard to yesterday’s incident, the individuals involved misrepresented where they were going and knowingly entered nonpublic areas of the building,” Chalfen told Splinter in an email.
“Our stated policy regarding electronic recording devices, video, audio or still photography is clear: those devices are allowed to be used in any public area by accredited working press displaying their NYPD or Court credentials,” he said. “The public is not allowed to use those devices and are subject to them being confiscated by Court Officers.” (In response, Stevens told Splinter that he “did not see it displayed prominently anywhere that there were restrictions on recording.”)
“In addition,” Chalfen added, “the behavior of the people involved, one being an officer of the court, subjected themselves to being arrested for trespass and disorderly conduct.” (He later clarified that the “officer of the court” he was referring to was the lawyer in the group.)
“We’re activists and advocates fighting for justice in this state, and sometimes you need to take action to do this, including things like civil disobedience and direct action,” Stevens told Splinter in response. “We did not create danger or destruction. We did what we believed and still believe was necessary to make our message clear.”
The Immigrant Defense Project says that ICE made at least 144 attempted arrests or arrests of people at New York courthouses in 2017—a 1,200 percent increase from 2016. Twenty-eight percent of those targeted, the group says, were reporting to court for low-level offenses such as traffic violations. In July, the New York City Bar called the practice “a threat to the New York State court system’s ability to ensure access to justice and the state’s overall community-based public safety goals.”
A bill was filed in the New York Assembly earlier this year to require judicial warrants for arrests, but the session ended this summer without a vote. After ICE attempted to arrest a woman at a human trafficking court in Queens in June 2017, PRI reported that DiFiore—who was nominated as the state’s chief judge by Governor Andrew Cuomo and confirmed in January 2016—“said that she was ‘greatly concerned’ and that courts should be treated like schools, hospitals and other sensitive locations that the city considers off-limits to ICE.”
But Chalfen told Splinter that although the New York courts “request that [ICE] treats all courthouses as sensitive locations” and that a January ICE memo regarding courthouse arrests “is a direct result of our communications with ICE officials on the national and regional levels,” they ultimately can’t stop ICE agents from entering the courts and arresting people.
“We are on record that it is illegal to shut down a public building to law enforcement. As such, we cannot do that and we will not do that,” he said. “There is not one state court system in the country that bars law enforcement, federal, state or local, from their courthouses.”
Either way, Stevens says that the NYCDSA and its allies will keep campaigning for ICE agents to be kept out of the courts.
“We want to keep this campaign up because we want to make clear that we won’t stand for ICE in the courts,” he told Splinter. “If Cuomo and New York are supposed to be the resistance against Trump, if we want to have justice in our justice system, we need to hold our courts accountable.”