Chaos erupted at Brooklyn Criminal Court Tuesday morning after agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement snatched a defendant in the hallway, prompting a walkout by public defenders and accusations from court officers that Legal Aid attorneys had physically attacked them.
Genaro Rojas Hernandez, thirty, was in court to face charges of violating a restraining order. Just after 11 a.m., after a judge asked him and his court-appointed attorney to step into the hallway with a Spanish interpreter, Hernandez was arrested by ICE agents, according to his lawyer, Rebecca Kavanagh. After the arrest, attorneys with the Legal Aid Society stormed out of the courthouse on Schermerhorn Street and held a noisy picket line outside the building, calling on immigration officials to stay out of the courthouse.
The arrest makes Hernandez the fortieth individual taken into custody by immigration enforcement agents inside a New York City courthouse, according to official statistics maintained by the state Office of Court Administration, which operates the courts. That estimate is conservative: The Immigrant Defense Project, an immigrant rights and legal assistance group, keeps its own tally that includes arrests made just outside courthouses. This count puts the number at seventy, with Hernandez the first arrest since two weeks ago when the Voice covered allegations that court officers were unfairly aiding ICE agents.
Immigration arrests in courthouses have skyrocketed since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January. ICE’s internal policies tightly regulate agent behavior in certain locations designated as “sensitive,” such as schools and hospitals, but the agency has so far refused to place courthouses into this category. OCA guidelines permit immigration enforcement agents to conduct operations in courthouses’ public areas so long as they identify themselves upon entry and stay out of courtrooms.
During Tuesday morning’s hearing, the judge alerted Kavanagh to the fact that ICE agents were waiting to arrest her client. She was given permission to speak with Hernandez with a Spanish interpreter in the hallway, she said.
Kavanagh had spotted a man she suspected was with ICE sitting in the hallway, but said he denied being an agent twice when asked. But as she walked out of the eighth-floor courtroom to explain the situation to Hernandez, the man followed them, she said. As Kavanagh and her client walked up the hallway to speak in private, another agent burst out of a set of double doors, and the two ICE officials grabbed Hernandez.
As the agents hustled Hernandez into a restricted area, a court officer sergeant and at least two other court officers assisted in the arrest, and held Kavanagh back as she attempted to take photos of the arrest and to urge Hernandez not to speak to the arresting officers, according to Kavanagh and several witnesses to the incident.
“ICE agents pounced on my client, and because I was still attempting to speak to my client, I got carried with them to the doors,” Kavanagh said. “My client was pushed through the doors, and the sergeant of the court part pushed me back.”
This is where the accounts of the attorneys present and court personnel diverge. According to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the OCA, Legal Aid attorneys “tried to yank the defendant away.” He said the incident “was predicated on four Legal Aid attorneys purposely interfering in an arrest situation, and only for the professionalism and restraint of the court officers involved, there were no injuries and the attorneys were not arrested for obstructing governmental administration.”
Dennis Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, expanded on that account: “The judge tells the Legal Aid lawyer, ‘ICE is outside the courtroom to take your client.’ Legal Aid walks the client to the door of the courtroom and tells the client to run.” Quirk alleged that Hernandez began to run and was intercepted by the ICE agents, and a struggle began. “Legal Aid starts to pushing the ICE agents, our people have to intervene and assist ICE, Legal Aid starts pushing our people,” said Quirk, who alleged attorneys “pushed court officers, they struck court officers, they hit court officers. They did the same thing to the ICE agents.”
Kavanagh scoffed at the accusation that she tried to interfere with the arrest. “I am an officer of the court,” she said. “The idea that I was attempting to interfere is crazy. We would never interfere with an arrest.”
Another Legal Aid attorney, Jane Sampeur, was standing a few yards away when the scuffle broke out, and said she saw no interference by Kavanagh.
“The whole thing was quite frightening,” Sampeur said. “You are your client’s last line of defense, and so the most you can do is stand there and say, ‘I have a right to speak with my client,’ and that’s what I saw her do. She just kept insisting on speaking with her client, but there were a number of very strong agents, and no matter how many times Ms. Kavanagh went to the gym, I assure you there’s nothing she would have been able to do to interfere with that arrest.”
“No one said, ‘Run,’ ” Sampeur added. “The idea isn’t to help someone evade the law, the idea is to be able to protect and ensure their rights. And quite frankly, our clients’ due-process rights are being violated.”
After finally catching up with Hernandez a few minutes later, Kavanagh was able to speak with him briefly in the presence of another Legal Aid lawyer and the two ICE agents, but all she could do was warn him not to speak to the agents any further, as she didn’t have a chance to have a confidential conversation. By that time, said Kavanagh, Hernandez had already made several statements to the arresting ICE officers, who had not identified themselves to him.
A spokesperson for ICE, Rachael Yong Yow, confirmed that agents had arrested Hernandez inside the courthouse but said she was not aware of a physical altercation taking place during the apprehension.
The arrest also drew the ire of acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who has spoken out against courthouse detentions in the past.
“Today’s ICE arrest during a hearing on a serious domestic violence case denied due process for both victim and defendant,” Gonzalez wrote in a statement. “Such actions deter victims from reporting abuse and threaten public safety. I join our public defenders in calling on ICE to reconsider their misguided policy and stop conducting enforcement raids in courthouses.”
Hernandez, a married father with two children under the ages of ten, was in court Tuesday to face charges stemming from an incident on November 6, in which he was accused of going to a Mexican restaurant in Midwood and getting into a fight with an employee there in violation of an earlier restraining order preventing Hernandez from contacting that person, according to court documents.
Prosecutors said Hernandez punched a woman, whom prosecutors identified only as his “ex,” several times before following her into the restaurant and knocking a television to the ground, police said. He was arrested that day and bailed out two days later, records show.
A native of Mexico who has been in the country for about fifteen years and has worked as a laborer at the same job for the past seven years, Hernandez was back in court despite risking arrest by immigration officials. His arrest could have a chilling effect on other immigrants — defendants and victims alike — showing their faces in court, according to Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services.
“Coming to criminal court is already a scary experience, and for immigrant clients especially,” Hechinger said. “But now more than ever there’s a concrete difference in how our clients are feeling when they come to court, whether undocumented or documented. There’s that fear in their eyes that really makes the court experience and representation even tougher.”
In the wake of the arrest and the ensuing walkout, the scene inside the courthouse was chaotic, as clients stood around in confusion and defense attorneys with other organizations scrambled to figure out what was going on. Ultimately, the courts adjourned for lunch about an hour earlier than normal.
The competing versions of what went down in the courthouse hallway is the latest and most acute example of increasingly hostile relations between defense attorneys and court personnel. Quirk, the court officer union president, has called Legal Aid’s activities irresponsible, and warned legal trouble for any attorney accused of interference in future ICE arrests.
“I gave direct orders to my people, the next time Legal Aid puts their hands on them, arrest them,” he said. “They’re getting a warning today. They’ll get no more. They do it again, we will lock them up.”