A Local Judge Turned a Couple’s Wedding Day Into a Nightmare

Alex and Krisha Parker

By Golnaz Fakhimi, Immigrants’ Rights Attorney

May 23, 2017, should have been the best day of Alex Parker and Krisha Schmick’s young lives; it was the day they were getting married. But it turned into a nightmare when a magisterial district judge in suburban Harrisburg summoned federal officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the courthouse to investigate Alex’s immigration status.

Alex, who is 22 years old, was born in Guatemala.  When he was a baby, he came to the United States as a Lawful Permanent Resident, on the basis of a prospective adoption by an American family. His status has remained the same ever since.

When Alex and Krisha decided to go forward with their wedding plans, the only form of ID that he had at the time was an ID from the Guatemalan consulate.  That ID was accepted by officials in Perry County, Pennsylvania, who issued Alex and Krisha a valid marriage license. Perry County did not conduct marriage ceremonies at the time, though.

So Alex and Krisha made an appointment for a marriage ceremony before Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth Beckley in Camp Hill, in Cumberland County. To begin their married lives together, their final task was to say, “I do,” in front of her.

Instead of conducting the ceremony as expected, Judge Beckley had a court officer detain Alex, she inquired into Alex’s immigration status herself, and she refused to accept Alex’s answers about having lawful status. Krisha left in a panic to search for documents at home that confirmed Alex’s status. Alex desperately contacted a caseworker of his from his time in foster care, asking that she please immediately send over those documents to the courthouse. On her end, Judge Beckley called ICE.

Alex and Krisha felt utterly panicked and distraught over what was unfolding. They were afraid that unless they could prove that Alex was here lawfully, not only would they not be married but ICE would rip them apart, lock up Alex in detention, and possibly deport him.

When the ICE officers arrived, they checked Alex’s fingerprints and confirmed that he is, in fact, a lawful resident. Judge Beckley apologized to Alex and Krisha but insisted that Alex would keep having problems like this if he used the consular ID. Krisha and Alex awkwardly went forward with the ceremony, in part, because they had already paid the fee for it.

Today, Alex and Krisha are happily married and living in Florida. And today we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Judge Beckley and the court officer who worked with her on the Parkers’ wedding day. The actions of Judge Beckley and the court officer were unlawful. By holding Alex, they engaged in unreasonable detention in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Judge Beckley also discriminated against Alex on the basis of his ethnicity and national origin, in violation of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And she interfered with the fundamental right of Alex and Krisha to get married, which is guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Local law-enforcement officials don’t have authority to enforce civil immigration laws, and, when they try to do so, they throw people’s lives into upheaval and chill other community members from engaging with law enforcement.  This hurts public safety in our communities.  When local court personnel undertake civil immigration enforcement, the harms can be even more concerning.

This wasn’t the first time Judge Beckley called ICE to report people before her who were getting married. Prior to Alex and Krisha, she had ICE arrest a groom from Tajikistan and his best man.

We’re filing this lawsuit to stop this from happening to any other couple that comes before Judge Beckley or any other judge in Pennsylvania. The freedom to marry is a fundamental right for everyone.

Pennsylvania Can’t Be a Model for Reform if We Undermine People’s Rights

By Andy Hoover, Director of Communications, ACLU of PA

Elected officials and corrections administrators in Pennsylvania have been doing a bit of a victory lap after the recent announcement that our state prison population dropped by 1,000 people in 2018. On the heels of the passage of the Clean Slate Act — a new law to automatically seal some people’s criminal records from public view — some have gone so far as to call Pennsylvania “a model” for criminal justice reform.

But before anyone gets carried away with the idea that the commonwealth suddenly gets it on smart justice, tap the brakes: The legislature is on the verge of granting ballot access to a state constitutional amendment that would undermine the fundamental rights of people who are accused of crimes in pursuit of “victims’ rights.”

We all feel sympathy and compassion for people who have been victimized. It’s neither right nor fair that some people are harmed by someone else’s behavior. If the government can create programs to support victims, that’s all the better.

But the pending constitutional amendment — known as Marsy’s Law and bankrolled by a billionaire from California — is a deeply flawed and downright dangerous undercutting of defendants’ rights. Supporters of the proposal say that they want the rights of victims to be equal in the Pennsylvania Constitution to the rights of the accused. Their narrative fails to appreciate why the state constitution includes the provisions it does – and excludes others.

A person accused of a crime faces the full weight of the state bearing down upon them. The state is attempting to deprive that person of their liberty, possibly even their life. Pennsylvania’s constitutional framers did not want the government to have the power to jail someone without layers of protections. That’s why our principles as a state — and a nation — include due process, a guarantee of counsel, and a presumption of innocence.

Contrast these with victims’ rights, which arise out of a dispute between two private people. One person’s rights against another person are fundamentally different than a person’s rights against the awesome power of the government. This is why our constitution, which lays out the restrictions on government power, includes defendants’ rights and why victims’ rights are primarily contained in statute.

The proposed Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment runs afoul of the protections granted to those subject to the power of the state. The new guarantees in this proposal include a victim’s right to refuse “an interview, deposition or other discovery request” sought by counsel for a defendant. Think about that: A person’s freedom is on the line in a trial, and Marsy’s Law would prohibit them from having the necessary information that could prove their innocence or mitigate the severity of their sentence. That person’s right to a fair trial would be lost, and with it, the chances for grave miscarriages of justice to occur increase.

This legislation also gives victims’ a right “to be treated with fairness and respect for the victim’s safety, dignity and privacy.” On its face, that sounds reasonable. We’re all about fairness and privacy here at the ACLU. But in other states, police officers have used this same Marsy’s Law to hide their identity after they shot people. Law enforcement officers have twisted a law intended for victims to hide their own behavior, at the very moment when transparency is most critical — after an officer has committed an act of violence against a private person.

The proposal in Pennsylvania is littered with vague language. It includes the constitutional right “to proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt and final conclusion of the case and any related postconviction proceedings.” This language could prevent a defendant from having the adequate time needed to present a defense or from the opportunity to have their case heard in the appeals process, which is guaranteed under the constitution. It’s worth noting that once in the constitution, vague language is incredibly difficult to amend when problems inevitably arise.

While our criminal justice system is far from perfect, the guarantees of both the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions are intended to mitigate the mighty power of the state when a person is accused of a crime. Writing Marsy’s Law into Pennsylvania’s Constitution will further empower the state, at the expense of the liberty of the person who is accused. Members of the General Assembly would be wise to slow down, rethink what they’re doing, and, like legislators in New Hampshire, Idaho, Maine, and Iowa, deny Marsy’s Law ballot access.