State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez said Wednesday she plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session to require immigration agents to get judicial warrants in order to make arrests at New Mexico courthouses.

The Albuquerque Democrat made the comment after a criminal defense lawyer told the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been arresting people they suspect are in the country illegally when they attend court proceedings or as they leave courthouses.

As a result, Albuquerque attorney Tova Indritz said, some domestic violence victims are afraid to go to court to seek restraining orders, and some witnesses and litigants don’t appear when called to testify.

“We know of many, many instances where ICE officers, generally in plainclothes, attend a court hearing to see who identifies as a particular person, then follow the person out of the courtroom and make an arrest in the hallway, leaving the courthouse, or while the person is walking back to his or her vehicle,” Indritz wrote in her testimony.

The push for legislation comes after the New Mexico Supreme Court last year denied a petition by a group of attorneys and advocacy organizations to require judicial warrants for arrests at courthouses. The petition also asked the court to allow people to request a “writ of protection” that would allow them to avoid being arrested when they are on their way to or from a courthouse.

Indritz said ICE makes courthouse arrests using an “administrative warrant” signed by a law enforcement officer, which does not require the officer to show probable cause of a criminal offense. A judicial warrant, on the other hand, would be issued by a judge based on a finding of probable cause.

The attorney told the story of a University of New Mexico student who had legal status in the U.S. but was arrested by ICE when he attended court to enter a plea on a DWI charge.

“No judge would have ever signed a warrant for someone who is not deportable,” Indritz wrote.

She also told the story of an individual who was arrested after appearing at Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque and was then sent to an immigrant detention center in El Paso. The ICE officer told the person’s attorney that he did not have a judicial warrant, Indritz said.

Indritz said the story illustrated the need for people to request a writ for protection when leaving courthouses.

Sedillo Lopez, a former University of New Mexico law school associate dean, called the practice of arresting people at courthouses without a judicial warrant “unconstitutional.”

“I would hope that all of my colleagues would see the threat to our constitutional rights of not standing up against ICE behavior that is unconstitutional,” she told The New Mexican.

Not all lawmakers were in her camp. Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an associate at Garcia Law Group in Albuquerque, said he also favors judicial warrants. But he said passing a state law to require them would conflict with federal law that allows ICE to make arrests with only an administrative warrant.

“The Legislature does not have the power to overturn federal law,” he said, adding that such an effort is dangerous at a time when states are challenging federal law in other areas such as abortion.

After the meeting, a testy exchange ensued between Sedillo Lopez and Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, over the issue.

“I practice in federal court and I practice these cases, and I know what I’m talking about,” Candelaria said.

“And I know what I’m talking about because I’ve taught the Constitution,” Sedillo Lopez responded.

“Have you practiced one of these cases in front of a federal judge?” Candelaria asked.

“Have you?” Sedillo Lopez asked back.

“Yes. Yes, I have,” Candelaria replied.

Regardless, advocates and attorneys seem committed to continue pushing for legislative action. One such attorney is Maria Sanchez of the ACLU of New Mexico, who also spoke at the hearing.

“This is causing a major chilling effect in the immigrant community where people are terrified of showing up to court,” Sanchez said.


Jens Erik Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, has been a regular contributor for TIME and The New York Times, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.