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SB 785 -- authored by Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to prevent irrelevant disclosures of immigration status in court – passed the California Legislature with bipartisan support last week

May 18, 2018 - Sacramento –  On Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 785, which protects immigrants from irrelevant disclosures of their immigration status in open court. SB 785 was authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San scott weiner california state senatorFrancisco) and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), and was approved with bipartisan support by both the Senate and the Assembly. As an urgency measure it required 2/3 approval by the Legislature, and it takes effect immediately.  

SB 785 was sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights and co-authored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco).

“Our courthouses should be places of justice, not places where immigrants are threatened with deportation,” said Senator Wiener. “This law makes everyone in our community safer by ensuring that witnesses and victims of crime are not afraid to report crimes, go to court, and hold criminals accountable. I want to thank Governor Brown for signing the bill and recognizing that actual public safety is served by everyone feeling safe coming forward to testify in court.”

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.

“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.”

“Where you come from has no bearing on whether or not you’re fit to step up to the witness stand and tell your story, and that’s why I’m so proud to be a part of this bipartisan effort," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. "This was never an immigration bill, it was a public safety bill, and I’m thankful that the legislature saw that.  I’m also grateful that the Governor demonstrated his commitment to our immigrant community once again.  Last session the Governor signed a bill to ensure immigrants could safely come forward and report crimes.  Through SB 785, the governor has effectively closed the loop by ensuring that after a crime is reported an immigrant can safely take part in our system of justice and hold offenders accountable.  This is a win for public safety and our system of justice.”

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.

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 was 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. 
Source: Senator Scott Wiener

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