Bill to Stop Irrelevant Disclosures of Immigration Status in Open Court Passes Assembly Committee with Unanimous & Bipartisan Support

March 20, 2018

Sacramento –  Today the Assembly 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. Senate Bill 785 is sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and is co-authored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco). SB 785 was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee by a unanimous and bipartisan vote.

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.

“With immigration sweeps happening all over our state and country, it’s more imperative than ever that our courts be free from the threat of deportations,” said Senator Wiener. “Everyone who is a victim or witness to a crime should feel safe to come forward to testify in court without fear of their immigration status being used against them when it has no bearing in the case. When people avoid our courthouses because of fears of deportation, then perpetrators of crimes remain free and our communities are less safe.” 

SB 785 was passed out of the State Senate last year, and is now moving through the Assembly in the second year of the two year session. It will next be heard in the Assembly Judiciary Committee before heading the full Assembly for a vote. 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.  

“With the climate of fear in the immigrant community, springing inadmissible evidence on the jury about immigration status is an underhanded tactic that dissuades testimony,” said District Attorney George Gascòn. “That's why this measure is so important, it will keep the doors to California's courtrooms open for everyone and ensure the fair administration of justice.  I commend Senator Wiener for working to protect the most vulnerable among us, so they may continue to cooperate with authorities without fear of immigration consequences.”

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 Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Californians for Safety and Justice, PICO California, California Association of Human Relations Organizations, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s Department of the Status of Women, Equal Justice Society, Public Law Center, San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, Tahirih Justice Center, San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, Oakland Privacy, and the YWCA – Glendale.