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ICE Contractor Cites Chauvin Case In Push For In-Person Trial

By Jennifer Doherty · Apr 26, 2021, 8:56 PM EDT

A private prison company accused of violating Washington labor laws by paying immigration detainees wages of $1 per day wants its trial to be held primarily in-person, citing the trial of Derek Chauvin as proof that such proceedings can be safe.

GEO Group Inc., which manages detention centers across the country on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, asked a Washington federal judge in a motion Friday to clarify what exactly the planned "hybrid" format for the upcoming trial will entail. The proceedings are scheduled to start on June 1.

According to the company, despite continued health risks from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a full and fair trial would require the jury and most witnesses to be physically present in the same room. Such was the case in the Minnesota state court where a jury last week convicted Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, of the murder of George Floyd.

"GEO believes that the great majority of the proceedings may safely be conducted in the courtroom, with the appropriate plexiglass dividers for the jury and the participants, and the appropriate facemask safeguards," the company said. "The recent Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis was widely publicized, and has set public expectations regarding the feasibility of an in-person jury trial with the appropriate safety precautions."

GEO is facing intersecting claims from a class of migrants and the state of Washington over labor practices at the 1,575-bed Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, where detainees allegedly performed jobs including laundry, janitorial and food service operations for a flat rate of $1 per shift, regardless of how many hours they worked.

In March, Washington lawmakers passed legislation to ban privately run detention centers from the state, where Northwest is the only institution that fits that description.

Along with seeking clarity on the hybrid proceedings, GEO raised concerns regarding witnesses and jury management, should the case proceed remotely.

"Specifically, GEO has concerns that safeguards are needed to ensure jurors are not conducting independent research or otherwise distracted during trial. In addition, GEO has raised the issue that it is impossible to see all jurors, the witness, and opposing counsel all at once on the screen," the company said.

GEO Group also pointed out that if the jury were not present in the same room, the court might not be able to ensure that all 12 jurors could hear testimony without interruption from weak internet connections or other issues, among other potential problems.

The trial was originally scheduled to begin last April, but was delayed after local authorities halted oral arguments in light of the first reported COVID-19 outbreaks in Western Washington.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan announced the new start date last month, though uncertain circumstances persisted.

"Hopefully, a traditional courtroom jury trial will be possible by June 1, 2021, but that remains to be seen," he wrote.

"The court is satisfied that it has the authority to order a remote trial even over the objection of one or all parties," Judge Bryan said at another point in his March order.

Counsel for GEO Group and the current and former ICE detainees did not respond to requests for comment.

The detainee class is represented by Jamal Whitehead, Adam J. Berger, Rebecca Jane Roe and Lindsay L. Halm of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, Andrew Free of the Law Office of R. Andrew Free, Devin T. Theriot-Orr of Open Sky Law PLLC, and Meena Menter of Menter Immigration Law PLLC.

GEO Group is represented by Adrienne Scheffey and Lawrence Silverman of Akerman LLP, and Joan Mell of III Branches Law PLLC.

The consolidated cases are Washington v. GEO Group Inc. and Ugochukwu Goodluck Nwauzor et al. v. GEO Group Inc., case numbers 3:17-cv-05906 and 3:17-cv-05769, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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