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SF Public Defender’s Office Condemns Traumatic Federal Arrests of Young Mothers Attending Hearings at Hall of Justice

District Attorney’s referral of cases to federal agents deters people from showing up to court, skirts Sanctuary policy, opens the door to abuses by ICE, and undercuts due process

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is condemning the recent surprise arrest of our clients by federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents at the Hall of Justice. On Oct. 19, two of our clients, who are both young mothers with no criminal history, came to their court hearings to address state charges brought by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. Instead, plainclothes DEA agents coordinated with a manager at the DA’s Office to arrest them at the courthouse. The women were handcuffed, transported out of county, and charged in federal court in connection to the same alleged crimes. Federal prosecutors later dismissed charges against one of the women for reasons that are unclear. Both women have young children and are the victims of gender-based violence.

“The unnecessary and traumatic arrests of these two young women represent the cruel and wasteful efforts of authorities behind the War on Drugs,” said elected San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “These actions are a threat to due process, not only for these women, but for others who may be deterred from doing the responsible thing by coming to court. Because of these arrests, young children were separated from their mothers, and that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how federal authorities callously separate families, causing harm that can impact generations.”

Since August 1, at least three other individuals have seen their local drug-related charges dismissed by state prosecutors and re-filed in federal court, where sentences tend to be far longer, and where individuals are more likely to be deported if they are undocumented or are lawful permanent residents. 

San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Ordinance prohibits local agencies from assisting or colluding with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to conduct civil immigration investigations, detentions or arrests. However, by referring cases to federal prosecutors, the District Attorney’s office and San Francisco police are seeking to evade Sanctuary laws. Within hours of the federal arrests, individuals have been offered so-called “fast-track” deals, in which they can plead to a federal charge in order to be swiftly transferred to ICE detention, where they can be deported with little to no due process.

“The actions by the DEA to dramatically seize our clients in local court and to federally charge them and others is more a deportation scheme than it is a way to solve the global overdose crisis,” said Francisco Ugarte, who heads the San Francisco Public Defender’s office Immigration Unit. “Drug use and addiction are public health issues. Stiffer penalties and tough-on-crime approaches have no measurable success in reducing drug availability or overdoses, nor does deportation.”

Angela Chan, an assistant chief attorney who heads the SF Public Defender’s Office policy team, added: “Rather than provide resources for evidence-based solutions like drug treatment and harm reduction programs that directly reduce overdoses, the city is scapegoating immigrants and attempting to undermine our longstanding, broadly supported Sanctuary Ordinance. Our city should not be spending its resources to funnel immigrants into horrendous conditions in ICE detention. Our Sanctuary law is an expression of San Francisco’s commitment to human rights and against discrimination. Most importantly, Sanctuary is a public safety tool that makes our communities safer.”

Several San Francisco Public Defender clients who have been accused of selling drugs have in fact been labor trafficked and were coerced through threats of harm to themselves and their families. California law allows people accused of committing crimes to defend themselves against state charges by presenting evidence that they were acting under such duress. Three recent San Francisco trials, in which individuals accused of selling drugs testified and provided evidence that they had been trafficked and coerced, resulted in hung juries and dismissals of the charges. 



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