‘It Was Clearly Criminal’: How A Massachusetts Judge Allegedly Helped An Illegal Alien Escape ICE

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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  • Massachusetts Judge Shelley Joseph allegedly helped an illegal alien avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) apprehension by directing him to leave through a back door in April 2018, prompting federal prosecutors to charge her with obstruction of justice.
  • Some in the immigrant activist community are not standing by Joseph, noting that she went so far as to turn off a recording of her conversation with lawyers while conspiring to help the illegal alien, which violated courtroom policy. 
  • Joseph is refusing to take a plea deal and is instead choosing to fight the charges. The court case could take years to reach its conclusion. 

A Massachusetts judge, indicted for allegedly helping sneak an illegal alien out of a courtroom in order to avoid an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, is opting to fight the charges instead of accepting a plea deal.

Federal prosecutors charged Shelley Joseph, a Newton District Court judge, with obstruction of justice in April for allegedly helping an illegal alien sneak through the backdoor of a courthouse, allowing him to evade an ICE officer who was waiting to apprehend him. Instead of taking a plea deal that would allow her to avoid prosecution, Joseph is preparing to go to trial.

The case has divided many in the Massachusetts legal community and has become a symbol of the growing tension between federal immigration authorities and local officials in liberal enclaves. Massachusetts has aggressively fought to restrict ICE’s ability to enforce immigration law in recent, a backlash against the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

The prosecution, nonetheless, is arguing that Joseph’s actions clearly broke the law.

Judge's gavel and blurred scales on background. (New Africa/Shutterstock)

A judge’s gavel is pictured. (New Africa/Shutterstock)

“We’ve heard rumors of, you know, judges doing this or that, I don’t want to identify them, but this was the first time we have come across an instance where, one, as alleged in the indictment, we thought it was clearly criminal, and two, we think we can prove it,” the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, told WGBH radio, The New York Times reported.

The incident took place on April 2, 2018 when an ICE officer arrived at the Newton District Court to apprehend Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal alien from the Dominican Republic.

Medina-Perez is a serial abuser of U.S. immigration law. Officials deported him from the country on two different occasions, with the second being in 2007, and barred him from entering the U.S. for 20 years. Authorities arrested Medina-Perez in Newton on narcotics charges and linked him to a warrant for DUI in Pennsylvania — which explained why he was at the Newton District Court on that day.

As is typical for many immigration courthouse apprehensions, the ICE officer was waiting for Medina-Perez to be bailed out so he could then be apprehended. Joseph ordered the court clerk to ask the officer to exit the courtroom and wait in the outside lobby. That order appears to have complied with policy at that time; however, what she allegedly did afterward landed her in legal trouble.

During a sidebar conference between Joseph, Medina-Perez’s defense attorney and the assistant district attorney, the three agreed that he was not the one wanted in Pennsylvania, and all agreed to release him. However, the defense attorney interjected during the conversation, noting that an ICE officer was waiting for Medina-Perez outside and would be apprehended. At that moment, Joseph asked the clerk to switch the courtroom recorder off — an apparent move to conceal the conversation and a direct violation of Massachusetts courtroom rules, according to the indictment.

When the recording came back on, the three agreed to release the illegal alien. However, instead of letting Medina-Perez out through the courtroom lobby, which is what’s typically done, the judge allegedly instructed him to be released through the rear exit, which leads to a parking lot. This order was never relayed over to the ICE officer, who waited in the lobby for hours.

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers transfer an unauthorized immigrant with a criminal record during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation in San Jose, California, U.S., Sept. 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kate Munsch

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers transfer an unauthorized immigrant with a criminal record during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation in San Jose, California, Sept. 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kate Munsch

The officer ultimately left the courtroom without Medina-Perez. Word immediately spread throughout the agency about what happened.

“I heard about it the same day it happened,” Thomas Homan, who was the acting director of ICE at the time, said to the Times. “I was dumbfounded. I said, ‘Well, now, things are going a bit too far.’ For an officer of the court to help someone escape ICE arrest. I’ve done this 35 years and never seen anything like that.” (RELATED: Opponents Of Immigration Enforcement Suffer Another Loss At The Ballot Box)

Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence — who was the director of enforcement removal operations at the time — said he began looking into legal options, considering it a clear example of obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors charged Joseph in April with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice for her actions.

While such disobedience against federal immigration law would likely be welcomed by immigration activists, there are some in the community who acknowledge that she went too far.

“We were quiet on this,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal said about the case. He is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil, an organization that sued to end courthouse detentions by ICE officers. “There are elements of this that have a very bad look.”

“People are sympathetic with Judge Joseph but at the same time there are elements of what happened in the courtroom that most people wouldn’t defend. I wouldn’t defend turning off the recorder in the courtroom,” he continued.

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