Word of warning: A simple Google search in defiance of a judge’s order can result in huge fines, one juror learned that the hard way recently when he tried to alert his fellow jurists that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer involved in an assault case may actually be a white supremacist.
According to Reuters, juror Stephen Meile is now facing a fine of $11,227 after the judge overseeing the trial of defendant Kevin Ruiz-Quezada, a man who allegedly assaulted ICE officers trying to detain him, held him in criminal contempt for using a search engine to determine the meaning of a patch on the ICE officer’s uniform. Meile, a retired pipefitter, contested other jurors’ belief that the patch was a union emblem. He allegedly Googled it himself the night before deliberations in violation of an order to not conduct independent research and came to the separate conclusion that it was a white supremacist symbol. As Law and Crime noted, jurors conducting their own research is considered a violation of the guarantees to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The judge eventually declared a mistrial in the case after other jurors informed the court Meile had told them of his suspicions. The show-cause order for contempt only discusses that Meile conducted “outside research,” and the Reuters story didn’t dive further into his allegations. According to Alison Frankel, Reuters’s legal affairs columnist, the patch itself was brought up during the trial but the extent of the discussion regarding it is unclear from transcripts. Reuters reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s office for New Jersey for clarification and was turned down for comment, while defense counsel Justin Loughry didn’t respond at all.
The $11,000+ fine issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler, John Browning of law firm Spencer Fane told Reuters, is “one of the most extreme punishments” ever handed down to a juror who disobeyed court instructions and appears to be an attempt to recoup funds “at least approximate the cost to the justice system.” More typically, jurors found in contempt pay small fines or serve community service.
Prosecutors alleged that after ICE officials came to Ruiz-Quesada’s home in December 2017 on an administrative arrest warrant and to initial immigration proceedings, citing convictions in New Jersey in 2002 and 2005for unsworn falsification and simulating an auto insurance ID, he resisted arrest. Ruiz-Quezada, a lawful permanent resident, says he was instead attempting to reach for his coat, while ICE officer Theodore Surick claimed the resulting scuffle resulted in him receiving an injury to his hand that required surgery. Ruiz-Quezada was subsequently detained for months.
Court documents obtained by Gizmodo (embedded below) show that after an immigration judge ruled the prior convictions were not grounds for conviction, ICE officials continued to pursue the felony assault charges in part because they hoped it would land Ruiz-Quezada back in immigration court. One deportation officer, Robert T. Lombardi, wrote in emails in late 2018 that while they were unsure the new charges would result in new immigration hearings, “This particular defendant has gotten enough breaks and slaps on the wrist for the justice system.”
According to Reuters, when another juror informed Judge Kugler that Meile had raised the claim of the white supremacist symbol, Kugler responded: “He said that to the whole jury? What was the reaction of the other jurors?”
The juror responded that it didn’t influence their decision because they were unsure if it was true, but “Everybody was very upset that he just didn’t listen and did the research.” Kugler then asked Meile a few questions, confirming that the juror knew he was in violation of the no-research order, before informing him that he may have committed “a serious offense against the court.”
While there’s a lack of clarity surrounding what the patch on the ICE officer’s uniform may have been, there are demonstrable instances in which ICE officers have been shown to hold white supremacist beliefs. ICE officials have a long track record of aggressively overstepping legal boundaries and abusing their authority in cases dating back to its formation in 2003. During Donald Trump administration, ramped up deportations and became somewhat of the ex-president’s personal goon squad. In April 2021, Joe Biden’s administration sought more funding for oversight offices at U.S. immigration agencies to investigate complaints, “including those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs,” in their workforces.
A retrial in the case is now pending.