Bill to Stop Irrelevant Disclosures of Immigration Status in Open Court Passes Senate Public Safety Committee

SB 785 prevents attorneys from questioning witnesses about their immigration status in open court unless a judge rules the status is relevant to the subject of the litigation, allowing undocumented immigrants to come forward without fear of deportation
May 16, 2017

Sacramento –  Today the Senate Public Safety Committee approved a bill by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) to protect immigrants from irrelevant disclosures of their immigration status in open court. SB 785 requires that any discussion or questioning about the immigration status of any witness, victim, or defendant first be deemed by a judge to be relevant to the subject of the litigation. This preliminary judicial determination will prevent disclosure of immigration status, which can deter and chill witnesses from coming forward to testify in both criminal and civil cases.

SB 785 passed 5-2 with Senators Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Wiener voting in support. SB 785 now moves onto a hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Our immigrant neighbors should not fear going to court to serve as a witness or appear as a victim when a crime has been committed,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “California’s courts should be focused on delivering justice, not on openly airing people’s immigration status when that status has nothing to do with the trial.”

“We can and should protect all California residents from inadvertent exposure when they are testifying in a courtroom. No one should have to decide between being a witness and being deported,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher.

Video of Senator Wiener talking about SB 785 can be viewed in English here and Spanish here.  

SB 785 bars any reference to immigration status in court, unless it is first determined to be admissible. To establish admissibility, an attorney must persuade a judge in a private, in camera hearing before raising the issue in open court. The judge will then determine whether to allow the issue to be raised.

This bill is sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, and supported by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Californians for Safety and Justice, and PICO California.

Recently, California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, “Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety. Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.” (FULL LETTER)

However, when individuals come forward to participate in court cases as victims or witnesses, some attorneys are raising their immigration status, even when that status is not relevant to the facts of the case. This creates a chilling effect, which can prevent victims and witnesses from coming forward, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials can use these proceedings to identify and locate individuals targeted for deportation. Recent news accounts in California and New York have reported that ICE agents have been showing up in Courts, monitoring trials, and making arrests.

This act amends a portion of the Evidence Code that was set by the voters in 1982, so to amend it requires a 2/3 vote by the legislature. SB 785 also includes an urgency statute, which will make it effective immediately once the Governor signs the legislation.