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Largest Ever Criminal Worksite Enforcement Operation Stretches Court
Early morning on April 16, 2008, an assistant U.S. Attorney and an agent of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wheeled a cart down the halls of the U.S. Courthouse in the Northern District of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. At the chambers of Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles, they unloaded six file drawer-size cardboard boxes filled with nearly 700 arrest warrants. Scoles recalls, “The ICE Agent would sign the complaint and affidavit, hand it to me to be signed along with a warrant, and it would then be refiled. This went on for the better part of the day.”
The warrants were to be executed in what ICE would call the largest single-site raid of its kind nationwide. On Monday, May 12, 2008, the Department of Justice reported that ICE had executed a criminal search warrant at a meat-packing company in Postville, Iowa, “for evidence relating to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other crimes, as well as a civil search warrant for people illegally in the United States.”
From the plant, more than 320 men and women were taken to detention on the fairgrounds of the National Cattle Congress in nearby Waterloo, Iowa. The same day, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa announced they had temporarily relocated a number of judges and other court personnel and services to Waterloo in response to the anticipated arrest and prosecution of numerous illegal aliens.
The decision to relocate was made by Chief Judge Linda R. Reade—but only after months of planning.
“I was advised informally last December that a major law enforcement initiative was being contemplated—although at that time I was not given any details,” said Reade. “As I received more information—including that there might be over 700 arrests—I talked with my fellow judges about how best to handle the cases. We developed checklists on initial appearances, status conferences, pleas and sentencings. We worded statements and instructions so they would interpret well. The court definitely couldn’t accommodate that number without planning.”
At the Waterloo facility, the district court set up on the east side of the fairgrounds with two separate double-wide trailers, each with a courtroom. The on-site Electric Park Ballroom housed a third courtroom. “The courtrooms were outfitted very professionally, with a slightly raised judge’s bench, a well, and seating for family members,” said Reade.
A week earlier, Clerk of Court Robert Phelps had prepared the infrastructure.
“In addition to the courtroom trailers, complete with IT, sound systems and recording equipment, we had two single-wide trailers for the clerk’s office and two single-wide trailers for the probation office,” Phelps said. “The Administrative Office sent out an engineer, who worked with us to set up and configure a temporary secure data communications connection from the fairgrounds to the court. We had our electronic court schedules and dockets just like back home in Cedar Rapids.”
The court was so well prepared that when one unexpected Ukrainian national requested a Russian interpreter, within 20 minutes a suitable interpreter was located in Illinois and a Telephone Interpreter Program phone line was set up.
All of this was done at a very high level of security.
“Our IT people weren’t given all the details,” said Reade. “They were told it was to be a Continuity of Operations Exercise and to plan to move the court technologically to an offsite location. We asked our clerk’s office and our probation office to plan for what they needed to do their jobs offsite.”
“We brought in 26 Spanish language interpreters from all over the country,” said Phelps. “When we contacted them, we couldn’t tell them why they were coming, so we told them it was a Continuity of Operations Exercise. ‘Show up in Waterloo prepared to stay two weeks and we’ll brief you then.’”
The court’s two active Article III judges, Chief Judge Reade and Judge Mark W. Bennett, were assisted by Judge Ralph Erickson from the District of North Dakota, who helped with cases for two days. They handled the sentencings. Initial appearances were handled by Reade, Chief Magistrate Judge Paul A. Zoss, and Magistrate Judge Scoles.
Defendants were processed by ICE within a day or two, and the warrants were executed by the U.S. Marshals Service, after which the detainees were brought in groups of 10 for their initial appearances. Three judges rotated through, handling initial appearances and later, plea changes. Many days for judges and court staff stretched from 8 a.m. to midnight. Scoles left the bench one night at 11:45 p.m. only to be called at 4 a.m. to sign 65 new warrants. (The U.S. Attorney had earlier roused Phelps with new requests for warrants.) “It made for a few very long days,” Scoles remembers.
Despite the daunting numbers and long hours, the process was the same as though each defendant were standing in the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids or Sioux City.
“We were sensitive to the fact that we saw 10 detainees at a time. We went through the same process as we would with one defendant in the courtroom,” said Scoles. “We took special care to explain the right to a trial and gave them the opportunity to ask questions. We took pains to make sure they understood the consequences of a guilty plea, a sentencing, and a judicial removal order.”
Local federal defenders were augmented with 16 Criminal Justice Act attorneys. Normally, panel attorneys would meet their clients at the initial appearance, but in these cases attorneys were assigned to, and most met, their clients one or two hours before the initial appearances. After detainees were remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, attorneys went to local facilities with assigned interpreters to meet with their clients and appeared with them at their status conferences or plea changes and sentencing hearings as well.
According to Bob Teig, representative for the U.S. Attorney’s office, 302 individuals were charged. The majority of offenders were offered plea deals in which they will spend five months in jail, followed by supervised release and removal from the country. Offenders will face additional charges as well as violation of their supervised release if they return to the U.S. illegally.
In every one of the hundreds of cases, Chief Probation Officer Bob Askelson and probation officers and staff ran criminal histories, checked identification records, and then provided oral reports to the court. When detainees moved from pretrial to their sentencing, Askelson’s group was there to prepare modified presentence reports with sentencing guideline analysis and judgments.
“We planned for 700 and prepared for that number,” Askelson said. “I’m proud of our staff. We brought the same integrity to the process here that we would in the Cedar Rapids courthouse.”
The court finished its work at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 22. In the end, 297 people pled guilty and were sentenced by the court in Waterloo. Only five cases were left to be resolved later in Cedar Rapids.
“We treated this relocation exercise like a large COOP exercise,” said Phelps. “We’ll be following up with counsel, interpreters, and others who participated in the operation to fine-tune our COOP planning.”
“Everything was so well thought through,” said Reade. “Clerk of Court Phelps, Probation Chief Askelson, our IT people, and all our court staff made this a successful off-site court experience. When problems arose, they got together and improvised. I’m proud of every one of them.”