A fundamental principle of our country’s justice system is that an individual accused of a crime has the right to defend him or herself in court. However, certain Massachusetts residents facing criminal charges have actually been prevented from appearing at their state court hearings.

The group in question is undocumented immigrants living in Massachusetts. In one example, an undocumented man from Central America allegedly got into an accident and then fled the scene. After an initial court appearance, he was detained by federal immigration officials at the courthouse and faces the threat of deportation.

To complicate matters, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement simply disregarded a state court order to transport the man to a subsequent court date in the hit-and-run case. At the same time, his immigration case was on hold pending resolution of the state criminal case. He was effectively caught in limbo.

Recently, a Massachusetts judge ordered ICE to allow this defendant to appear in his state court case. Immigration advocates have expressed hope that the ruling will end the agency’s practice of preventing immigration detainees from attending state court proceedings, something they only recently began doing. ICE contends that it has concerns that detainees will be able to evade custody in state court and flee.

The ruling reaffirms that the right to appear in court when charged with a crime, and, if desired, to representation by a criminal defense professional, is not something that immigration authorities should simply dismiss. A legal professional can play an important role in protecting a defendant’s rights in complicated legal scenarios like this.

Source: Boston Herald, “Judge rules ICE must allow immigrant to contest charge,” Laurel J. Sweet, March 16, 2018