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Detainee Says ICE Officer Spied On Attorney-Client Conversation

A Vancouver, Washington, resident who is in the country illegally claims his constitutional rights were violated by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who eavesdropped on a conversation he had with his attorney at the Clark County courthouse in January.

Jorge Luis Acebal-Coria filed a complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, alleging a plainclothes ICE officer listened to a private conversation with his attorney that was facilitated by the court's interpreter.

The same ICE officer, Jordan Vossler, later arrested Acebal-Coria, according to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit based in Seattle that's representing Acebal-Coria.

"I heard you talking, you're illegal," Vossler told Acebal-Coria during the arrest, according to NWIRP.

The complaint raises questions about the confidentiality of attorney-client communications. And it could renew the debate about the tactics used by ICE officers in and around courthouses to arrest people they suspect of being in the country illegally.

Acebal-Coria is currently being held at ICE's Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

In addition to the complaint filed with DHS, his attorneys said they filed a motion with an immigration judge to dismiss the deportation case "in light of the constitutional and statutory violations that led to his arrest."

Acebal-Coria was born in Mexico and came to the United States 23 years ago, according to a portion of an ICE document NWIRP shared publicly.

Around 8:30 a.m. Jan. 24, Acebal-Coria was at the Clark County Courthouse in Vancouver, Washington. Last year, he was arrested and charged with third-degree malicious mischief, a misdemeanor, for allegedly throwing a can of air freshener at another vehicle, according to the Columbian newspaper.

After his defense attorney called his name, Acebal-Coria followed him out into the hall to talk. In the complaint to DHS, Acebal-Coria said he noticed a "man in plain clothes follow us out of the room."

"I sat on a bench with my attorney in the waiting room and spoke with him about my case," Acebal-Coria wrote in the complaint.

He said the man who had followed him out of a courtroom earlier sat "across from us and listened to our conversation. The same man arrested me after I left the courthouse, and he told me he heard everything I said to my attorney."

"It's not accidental, it's intentional," said NWIRP's Tim Warden-Hertz, who's representing Acebal-Coria in the immigration case.

NWIRP released a portion of Vossler's report.

"As subject continued to speak to court staff as they communicated in Spanish and English in the public waiting room (Officer) Vossler overheard subject inform court staff that he was not a United States Citizen and was born in Mexico," the report states.

The immigrant rights group says the court staff Vossler is referring to is actually Acebal-Coria's criminal defense attorney.

ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

"However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations," she said in an email. "In DHS’s homeland security mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the Department’s mission, (and) uphold our laws while continuing to provide our nation with safety and security."

After Acebal-Coria's arrest, he was taken to the ICE detention center in Tacoma. Later, while there, he had a stroke and had to be hospitalized, according to NWIRP. He's since been returned to detention.

"This case is important so that other people are aware of this conduct by ICE officers and know that they can fight back," Acebal-Coria said in a statement. "It's already intimidating to go to a courthouse; knowing that ICE was eavesdropping on my conversation with my lawyer makes me even more scared to go to court in the future."

During the last year, ICE has been criticized by judges and other legal professionals for making arrests inside and near courthouses.

On Jan. 10, the agency issued a new policy on courthouse arrests.

"Civil immigration enforcement actions inside courthouses should, to the extent practicable, continue to take place in non-public areas of the courthouse, be conducted in collaboration with court security staff, and utilize the court building's non-public entrances and exits," the policy states.

Acebal-Coria is set to appear in immigration court Friday, where a judge could rule on whether his deportation case is dismissed.

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project


Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.