California Legislature Passes Bill to Stop Irrelevant Disclosures of Immigration Status in Open Court with Bipartisan Support

SB 785 -- authored by Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to protect immigrants testifying in court – now goes to the Governor for approval
May 10, 2018

Sacramento –  Today the California State Senate finally passed Senate Bill 785 -- a bill by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) to protect immigrants from irrelevant disclosures of their immigration status in open court. The bill passed in Senate by a vote of 31-6 with both Democrats and Republicans in support. SB 785 previously passed the Assembly on Monday with bipartisan vote of 67-1. 

SB 785 now goes to Governor Brown for his signature. As an urgency measure which requires 2/3 approval, it will take effect immediately upon being signed.

Senate Bill 785 is sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascòn and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights and is co-authored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco).

Tomorrow, Senator Wiener will join District Attorney Gascòn and other supporters at a press conference in San Francisco’s Mission District in support of SB 785 and urging Governor Brown to sign the bill. The press conference will take place at 10:30am at the Betel Apartments (an affordable housing complex) at 1227 Hampshire Street in San Francisco.

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.

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 and admissible. 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. 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.

“Our courts should be places where justice is served for all, regardless of immigration status,” said Senator Wiener. “This bill will help victims of crime and witnesses to crime come forward and testify about what they have seen, not remain fearful to do so on the chance that their immigration status, which has nothing to do with the crime, will be made public. With support from both Democrats and Republicans, the California Legislature has shown that we understand that public safety matters more than immigration status in our courts.”

“This is about protecting public safety,” said Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher. “Our criminal-justice system can’t function if witnesses or victims are afraid to testify out of fear of being deported. You should be able to testify against a murderer or rapist without fearing that you or your loved ones will be thrown out of the country as a result.”

SB 785 was passed out of the State Senate last year, and has now moved through the Assembly in the second year of the two year session. Since the bill was amended in the Assembly, it must return to the Senate for a final vote. SB 785 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.  

“In an era where the rhetoric out of Washington is increasingly anti-immigrant, the overwhelming bipartisan support for this bill gives me hope,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascòn. “It speaks to a growing consensus that community safety is threatened when any group of people is too fearful to come forward and participate in our system of justice. Publicly disclosing and leveraging immigration status of victims and witnesses of crime not only contradicts Sanctuary City policies, it boils down to an intimidation tactic that dissuades undocumented immigrants from testifying, pure and simple.”

"ICE has repeatedly shown us that under this administration that immigrants do not matter when they come forward to seek justice in our judicial system," stated Joseph Villela, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. "We hope that the Governor will sign this legislation to send a reaffirming message to Californians that the courts in our state will ensure that justice is prevailed regardless of someone's status." 

The Immigrant Defense Project reported that in 2017, the number of arrests or attempted arrests by ICE agents at all courthouses in New York increased by 900%.  Last year, California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former 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)

This bill supported by the Californians for Safety and Justice, PICO California, California Association of Human Relations Organizations, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and many more.