U.S. Charges Judge With Helping Immigrant Escape ICE at Courthouse
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U.S. Charges Judge With Helping Immigrant Escape ICE at Courthouse

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United States Attorney Andrew Lelling of Massachusetts said a state judge intentionally interfered with the enforcement of federal law by helping an immigrant evade an ICE officer.CreditCreditSteven Senne/Associated Press

Federal prosecutors charged a state judge and a former court officer in Massachusetts with obstruction of justice on Thursday for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant escape from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer at a courthouse last year.

The indictment of the judge, Shelley M. Richmond Joseph, 51, and the officer, Wesley MacGregor, 56, was a dramatic turn in the long-running clash between the Trump administration and state governments that have resisted its hard-line approach to immigration.

Prosecutors accused Judge Joseph and Mr. MacGregor of letting their beliefs trump federal immigration law when they allegedly helped the man, who was not named in the indictment, sneak out of Newton District Courthouse in Newton, Mass., in March 2018. The judge ordered the man to go to a basement facility, where he was let out a back door, rather than into the lobby, where she knew that an ICE officer was waiting for him, prosecutors say.

“The allegations in today’s indictment involve obstruction by a sitting judge, that is intentional interference with the enforcement of federal law, and that is a crime,” United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement. “We cannot pick and choose the federal laws we follow, or use our personal views to justify violating the law.”

Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts sharply criticized the charges.

“Today’s indictment is a radical and politically motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts,” Ms. Healey, a Democrat, said in a statement. “It is a bedrock principle of our constitutional system that federal prosecutors should not recklessly interfere with the operation of state courts and their administration of justice.”

Judge Joseph and Mr. MacGregor were each charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice, prosecutors said. Mr. MacGregor was also charged with perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury about the episode.

Both pleaded not guilty, according to The Associated Press, which said the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had suspended Judge Joseph without pay.

If convicted, the judge could face up to 25 years in prison and Mr. MacGregor could face up to 30 years, prosecutors said. They could each also face a fine of $250,000.

Tom Hoopes, a lawyer for Judge Joseph, said in an email that she was “absolutely innocent.”

“This case is absolutely political,” he wrote.

Mr. MacGregor’s lawyer, Scott Lauer, called the indictment “federal immigration enforcement run amok” and said the allegations were “factually wrong and legally questionable.”

Matthew Segal, the legal director for the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts, said the indictment flew in the face of the Massachusetts Code of Judicial Conduct, which says judges and court personnel have an obligation to ensure that people coming before them, including people who are not citizens, can be heard.

Mr. Segal said the prosecution would also be complicated by a 2017 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, Lunn v. Commonwealth, that ruled state law enforcement officers do not have the authority to arrest someone based on an order from ICE.

“The government will have a real uphill climb on some of the elements of this case,” Mr. Segal said. “I don’t think it would be permissible for a Massachusetts judge to assist ICE or to have a court security officer assist ICE in apprehending someone who is coming to a Massachusetts court to be heard.”

Prosecutors said the immigrant was arrested by Newton Police on March 30, 2018, and charged with drug possession and being a fugitive from Pennsylvania.

A national law enforcement database matched his fingerprints with someone who was deported from the United States twice, in 2003 and 2007, and subsequently banned from the country until 2027.

ICE learned of his arrest and issued a federal immigration detainer that asked local law enforcement to hold him for 48 hours until ICE could take him into custody.

The police transferred him to the courthouse, where prosecutors said the probation office was aware of the detainer, as were the man’s defense lawyer, David Jellinek, and a prosecutor who was not named in the indictment.

An ICE officer went to the courthouse on April 2 to observe the man’s hearing and detain him if he were released. According to the indictment, the judge instructed the clerk to tell the officer to leave the courtroom and wait outside. He was told the man would leave through the lobby if he were released.

A courtroom recording device picked up a conversation between the judge and others in the courtroom, a partial transcript of which was included in the indictment. It showed them uneasy with the presence of the ICE officer.

Mr. Jellinek and the prosecutor said they agreed that the man in custody was not the fugitive from Pennsylvania. And Mr. Jellinek said his client denied being wanted by ICE.

“ICE is going to pick him up if he walks out the front door,” Mr. Jellinek said. “But I think the best thing for us to do is to clear the fugitive issue, release him on a personal, and hope that he can avoid ICE.… That’s the best I can do.”

The judge said she could order him held for another day “if you need more time to figure this out.”

The prosecutor then brought up the ICE detainer. “I feel like that’s separate and apart from what my role is,” the prosecutor said.

“ICE is going to get him?” the judge asked. She then ordered the recorder to be turned off, which the indictment said was in violation of Massachusetts court rules.

When the recorder was turned back on 52 seconds later, the fugitive charge was dismissed and the man was ordered released.

But instead of sending him to the lobby, the judge ordered him to go to the basement lockup facility, where Mr. MacGregor let him out through a back door, the indictment said.

Meanwhile, the courtroom recorder continued to roll upstairs.

“There was a representative from, uh, ICE here in the court,” the clerk told the judge. “To visit the lockup.”

“That’s fine,” Judge Joseph replied. “I’m not going to allow them to come in here. But he’s been released on this.”

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