A morning in court

One of the privileges of being a pastor is having a window into the many ways people in this congregation serve the community in their professional lives.  I spent my morning with Joe Mas, a CMCer who is a criminal defense attorney downtown working especially with the Spanish speaking population.  Joe was part of a panel at a BREAD Welcome Columbus! event on immigration back in March.  His presentation caught my attention and afterwards we agreed that he would show me around his work someday.  That day was today.

The court system is mostly a foreign world to me, so a good part of the time I was trying to catch up on the basics of how it all worked.  All morning we were in the Franklin County Municipal Court building on South High Street.  The municipal court hears misdemeanor cases and civil cases where the claim does not exceed $15,000.  The court can also hold bond hearings for felony charges.  Joe took me into the two courtrooms on the first floor, both dealing with minor offenses – small fines mostly below $200.

In another room on a higher level of the building we witnessed different bond hearings for felonies.  Among them were six Hispanic men who had been arrested at the airport last night and charged with drug trafficking.  Several of them did not have social security numbers.  Two of them claimed they had no involvement in the trafficking.  They were each given $1.5 million bond and held in jail awaiting indictment and transfer to the Common Pleas Court. 

Joe noted that about 10,000 undocumented persons come through the Franklin County Municipal Court each year.   About 96% of them come to one of those first-floor rooms – most often for traffic violations, which can range from driving while intoxicated to having a light out on their vehicle.  The other 4% have serious felony or crimes of violence charges and will be deported if convicted.  Those in the 96%, when pulled over by Columbus Police and discovered to not have official documentation, are first taken to the police station to be finger printed and then given a date to appear in court.  This is where their situation can take two significantly different paths.  About 2/3rd of that group will be asked to show up in court and pay their fine, with no further penalties.  This is the hoped for path.  But the other 1/3rd – at the arresting officer’s discretion – will be processed through the jail, which is where their situation becomes more perilous.  In being checked into the jail, their names are automatically given to ICE, the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.  ICE then will place a “holder” or order of detention on them so they will be picked up and interviewed.  ICE can then decide whether or not to pursue deportation.

One of the things Joe does is advocate to the judge that they can pay a fine, but not be sent to jail, thus keeping them out of ICE’s reach.  Joe has been at this 35 years and it is clear that the work is highly relational, the judges and prosecutors and public defenders and defense attorneys and others working in the building know each other well.  The relationships of trust and good rapport are what enable Joe to do his work effectively.

It’s hectic work, and emotionally draining.  Joe feels what he is mainly doing in these cases is enabling his clients to have more time until real immigration reform can happen at the federal level.  We both agreed this was not just a job, but a calling.