Judge Shelley M. Joseph has reportedly found herself on the other side of the law. A federal investigation has been opened to determine whether she and other court officials broke the law and helped an undocumented immigrant avoid deportation, according to sources cited by the Boston Globe.
The office of the U.S. Attorney, Andrew E. Lelling, has neither confirmed nor denied that a grand jury has been convened. When local reporters asked him about it on December 12, he again declined to confirm the investigation. MassLive.com quoted Lelling as saying, “I have no plans to prosecute judges. But he added, “I think that the coverage on that story… should be a reminder that the ICE agents who are enforcing immigration laws, they’re doing just that. They’re enforcing a federal law. And so if you don’t like that federal law, change the law.”
But the governor of Massachusetts has appeared to confirm that the investigation is happening. Governor Charlie Baker, who appointed Judge Joseph, says she should be removed from her position in the interim. He told reporters outside the statehouse on December 4, “I don’t believe she should be hearing criminal cases until that federal case is resolved.”
An agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was present in Newton District Court in Massachusetts on April 2, 2018. The agent was there to take Jose Medina-Perez into custody. Medina-Perez had been arrested on a drug charge. There was also an outstanding warrant against him for a drunk driving incident in Pennsylvania.
Judge Joseph, the defense attorney, and the state prosecutor had a conversation about Medina-Perez’s situation during a sidebar. Judge Joseph is heard on the court recording “ICE is going to get him” before telling the clerk to shut it off. Later on, Medina-Perez was escorted to a back door to avoid the ICE agent.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Judge, Defense Attorney & State Prosecutor Were Heard Discussing the Fact That an ICE Agent Was Going to Detain Jose Medina-Perez Before the Audio Was Shut Off; All Court Proceedings Are Required to be Recorded
At the heart of the reported grand jury investigation is a sidebar conversation that took place between Judge Joseph and the attorneys involved in Jose Medina-Perez’s case. The defense attorney was David Jellinek. The prosecutor was Shannon Jurgens, an Assistant District Attorney at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.
The Boston Globe obtained a copy of part of their conversation. The audio begins with Jurgens saying, ‘I don’t think it’s him.” Jellinek’s response is muffled except for the beginning, in which he says, “ICE is convinced that this guy…” He goes on to mention certain social media posts and that “my client denies that it’s him.”
Jellinek can then be heard saying, “ICE will pick him up if he walks out the front door. But I think the best thing for us to do is clear the fugitive issue and release him on personal…” The next part was not audible. The prosecutor responds by saying “I don’t think arguing with ICE is really my…” The last part of that sentence was not picked up on the recording.
Next, Judge Joseph brings up the idea of continuing the case until the next day. Jurgens responds by saying, “There is a detainer attached to my paperwork. But I felt like that’s separate and apart from what my role is.”
Judge Joseph is then heard saying, “ICE is going to get him.” The defense attorney asks if the clerk is recording their conversation. Judge Joseph asks her clerk to shut off the recording and allow them to go “off the record for a moment.”
2. Medina-Perez Was Released & Escorted Out of the Building Using a Back Entrance to Avoid Confronting the ICE Agent; He Was Arrested Again Later That Month
Jose Medina-Perez was arrested on March 30 in Newton, Massachusetts on drug possession charges, as reported by the Boston Globe. During his arrest, police discovered an outstanding warrant from Pennsylvania as well, for a drunk driving arrest. That’s where the fugitive designation came from.
In Judge Joseph’s courtroom a few days later, the prosecutor decided to drop the fugitive charge, claiming that the mugshot from Pennsylvania did not match the defendant. The drug charge was not severe enough to require Medina-Perez to continue to be held in custody. Therefore, the Newton District Court could release him.
However, according to sources cited by the newspaper, it appears that Judge Joseph and the defense attorney may have taken extra steps to help Medina-Perez get around the ICE agent who was waiting for him at the courthouse. Jellinek escorted his client downstairs. Judge Joseph also reportedly denied the ICE agent access to the detention area. Medina-Perez left the courthouse through a back door and reportedly climbed over a fence to get away.
He was not free for very long. Medina-Perez, who also goes by the names Oscar Manuel Peguero and Julio Alexis Rios, was arrested later that same month. His deportation case is reportedly pending. According to ICE, he is a native of the Dominican Republic and was deported in 2003 and 2007.
3. Newton, Massachusetts is a Sanctuary City & the State Supreme Court Ruled in 2017 That People Could Not Be Detained on Immigration Violations Alone
The City Council in Newton, Massachusetts voted in February 2017 to designate the community as a sanctuary city. The vote passed 16 to 1. Under the ruling, city officials were stating that local police would not help federal officials detain undocumented immigrants.
In 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also ruled that law enforcement officials cannot detain someone based solely on their immigration status. That means that even if federal officials issue a detainer, local and state police cannot hold that person unless they are facing criminal charges.
The high court’s ruling was based on a case called Sreynuon Lunn vs. Commonwealth. You can read through the entire case report, which is embedded above. The defendant, Sreynuon Lunn, was arrested on suspicion of robbery but the charge was later dropped.
ICE requested that local police detain him even after the robbery charge was dismissed because he was reportedly an undocumented immigrant from Cambodia. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the man’s favor, arguing that the state was not required to hold a person in custody based solely on their immigration status.
4. State Officials Are Not Legally Required to Assist Federal Agents in Detaining Someone, But It’s Illegal to Interfere
Under Massachusetts law, the ICE agent was within his rights to take Jose Medina-Perez into custody at the Newton District Court. In September of 2018, Justice Elspeth Cypher of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on a case concerning this issue.
Groups including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice had filed a petition to prevent federal agents from arresting immigrants at state courthouses. The idea behind the petition was that witnesses and victims would not appear for other cases out of fear that they could be suddenly detained.
Justice Cypher denied the petitioners’ request, meaning the case would not go before the full court. Her decision included the following explanation:
“The petition seeks a single, unprecedented, and exceedingly broad remedy – a writ of protection covering all undocumented immigrants and others who are subject to possible immigration consequences, for all of their current and future business in the Massachusetts courts, based on an ex parte record. For the reasons stated, I decline to report this matter to the full court as requested, and I decline to issue the writ. The full court would be in no better position than I am to issue such a broad and impractical writ in these circumstances. Accordingly, a judgment shall enter denying the petition.”
To circle back to the Newton District Court case, Judge Shelley Joseph was not obligated to help the ICE agent detain Jose Medina-Perez. But by denying him access to the lock-up area, she may have hindered the agent’s efforts. According to Massachusetts Trial Court guidelines, judges and other court staffers are prohibited from interfering when a federal official makes an arrest.
All court sessions are also required to be recorded. By telling the clerk to stop recording during the sidebar conversation with the attorneys, Judge Joseph may have crossed a line.
The field office director for ICE in Boston, Todd Lyons, issued a statement without specifically mentioning Judge Joseph. The statement read, “It would be gravely concerning to us, as well as disrespectful to the men and women of ICE who put themselves in harms’ way to protect our communities, if anyone, especially a representative of a court, were alleged to have taken deliberate actions to aid an immigration fugitive in evading the law.”
5. Judge Joseph Used to Work as a Defense Attorney
Shelley M. Richmond Joseph was appointed to the bench in September of 2017. She previously worked alongside her husband, Scott Joseph at a law firm they founded together in 2003 called Joseph & Joseph. According to her official bio on Mass.gov, she specialized in “criminal defense, hearings before the registry of motor vehicles, and restraining orders.”
Joseph does have prior experience as a prosecutor as well. She worked as an Assistant District Attorney at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in the Boston area during the 1990s. She also served as an Assistant Attorney General from 1993 through 2000.
Joseph earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boston College with a concentration in Spanish. She earned her law degree from the New England School of Law.