Photo: Protesters surround an ICE van holding Samuel Oliver-Bruno at the US Citizenship & Immigration Services office in Morrisville in November 2018. (photo by Anna Carson-DeWitt)
Ten people involved in November 2018 protest attempting to block the deportation of a man who had been in sanctuary in a Durham church saw their charges dropped in a Wake County courtroom today.
Samuel Oliver-Bruno had been staying at CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, and the day after Thanksgiving 2018 he went to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Morrisville for what he expected to be a routine fingerprinting as a good-faith step in his quest for reprieve from a deportation order. Video published by the News & Observer shows Oliver-Bruno being tackled inside the immigration office, followed by a chaotic scene as ICE officers rushed him to a van, and supporters surrounded the vehicle while singing “Amazing Grace.”
Charges against 17 other defendants charged in the protest were previously dismissed after they completed community service under deferred prosecution agreements.
The remaining 10 defendants were each charged with failure to disperse and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer.
Scott Holmes, the lawyer representing the 10 defendants, told Judge Eric Chasse that the failure to disperse charge requires a reasonable belief that a riot or disorderly conduct is occurring, and nothing like that took place during the incident.
Morrisville police Chief Patrice Andrews testified that an individual who was not among the defendants said “f*** the police” to her.
“It gives me pause for concern that I potentially am going to lose control of a situation that until this point have worked very hard to control and to de-escalate,” she said.
But the individual who said “f*** the police” was not arrested, and Andrews said she thought it would have been counterproductive to do so.
Assistant District Attorney Daniel Watts argued that the utterance of ‘f*** the police’ was disorderly conduct.
Judge Chasse agreed with Holmes.
“In so far as there was a belief that a riot or disorderly conduct was occurring, I cannot find under these facts that that’s a reasonable belief,” he said. “And that is a predicate to issuing an order to disperse.”
Chief Andrews testified that she responded to a call about ICE agents apprehending someone and not being allowed to leave. She said she was not familiar with the US Customs & Immigration Services building in her town.
“So, I will tell you on that day it was actually a shock to all of us that this particular location was a location in which ICE was present at, to be quite honest with you,” she said. “It’s a very unassuming building.”
When she arrived on the scene, Andrews said she approached the ICE agents to figure out what was going on.
“They were sitting in the car,” Andrews said. “I will be quite honest with you: They did not want to give me a lot of information. And I had to really press to talk to someone about what was going on.”
Andrews said she viewed the federal arrest warrant for Oliver-Bruno, adding that she considered it her “duty” to do so and “justify why we were being called there.”
Andrews could not recall exactly what offense was described on the warrant. “If I remember correctly,” she said, “it was something to the effect of, it was failure to comply or something along those lines.”
Holmes pressed Andrews on whether she knew Oliver-Bruno’s arrest was a criminal as opposed to a civil matter, challenging the local law enforcement agencies authority to assist ICE.
“I have training on proper Fourth Amendment search and seizure,” Andrews said. “I have over 20 some years of experience of being a law enforcement officer who is just and true. If I didn’t feel ICE was there for a lawful reason, certainly we would not — number one, there wouldn’t be charges for the delay and obstruct of an officer. And there certainly would not have been the failure to disperse. There wouldn’t have been one without the other.”
Judge Chasse indicated he was having trouble ascertaining whether the resist, delay and obstruct charges were legally supportable considering he didn’t know the name of the ICE agent, jestingly referring to him as “Agent Voldemort.”
“I just don’t have the evidence in front of me,” he said, “and I think I’m stuck in that regard.”
Chasse dismissed both charges against Susanna Barcus, Elizabeth Johnson, Hannah Hawkins and Frank Chambers. Afterwards, Assistant District Attorney Watts dismissed charges against Harold May, Lauren Park, Manju Rajendran, Jose Romero, Corey Summers and Scott West.
Rajendran said the dismissal was a bittersweet experience.
“I feel so relieved that we were able to get our charges dismissed,” she said. “I’m also holding a lot of grief with the awareness that Samuel was unjustly deported, and the suffering that their family and the whole community that loves them has gone through. No family should ever have to go through that.”
Rajendran was one of many Triangle activists who responded to support Oliver-Bruno and suddenly found themselves making the decision to put themselves at risk of arrest after federal immigration authorities unexpectedly took Oliver-Bruno into custody.
“What pulled me there that day with my daughter and family was a feeling that we’ve just got to create a system of solidarity so that when ICE agents are showing up to kidnap a member of our community, we all stand up for each other and protect each other,” Rajendran said. “I felt proud of our family for making a really swift decision that required very little deliberation to race there and show our support.
“My mother was undocumented,” she continued. “And I felt like we had the chance that day to show up for our neighbors in a way we would have hope our neighbors would have showed up for our family if something like that had happened to us.”
Rajendran’s daughter, who was 2-years-old at the time, witnessed her arrest, and she said her daughter still asks why Oliver-Bruno was taken away.
Rajendran said it was not difficult for her as a mother to make the decision to put herself in a situation where she could be arrested.
“But there was a police officer who was trying to pressure me to break away, saying that it was not where I belonged as a mother,” she recalled. “And I said I was there because I wanted to be a part of building a world that my daughter and all children could thrive and be safe in.”