When 23-year-old Rita “Fany” Cote’s sister dialed 911 to report physical abuse by her boyfriend, she thought the police would help her — never did she imagine what would happen next. Tavares, Fla., police officers arrived and instead of apprehending the alleged suspect, they demanded proof of residency from Fany, who was serving as her sister’s interpreter. Seem unlikely? It is exactly what happened.
Cote's sister, the complaining witness, had bruises on her neck and made several pleas to press charges against her boyfriend. Tavares officers refused to remove the assailant from the home and did not follow the procedures required by Florida Statute for assisting victims of domestic violence. Instead, they assumed the role of federal immigration authorities and arrested Fany Cote. Police officers ripped her away from her family over an outstanding deportation order as they watched from a living room window.
In 2000, when she was only 15, Fany's parents brought her to Florida from Honduras without documentation. Her husband and their three small children, ages 7, 4, and 2, are all U.S. citizens.
Fany, who was unable to provide proof of residency, was arrested by police officers while the alleged assailant was not even mentioned in the police report. The police ignored a domestic violence call to which they were responding, and arrested Cote without any charges, usurping federal immigration officers’ authority, and then detained her in the local jail, without a warrant.
The ACLU of Florida became involved in the controversial case after learning of the illegal manner in which Cote was arrested and detained. Local police had been unlawfully holding Fany without cause for a week when the ACLU of Florida filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court, demanding her release. Within hours of the filing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were called in to take her away, and she was transferred to the Orlando, then Broward County detention facilities where she was detained for another week without access to her family.
Everyone involved was relieved yesterday when Fany Cote was released to her family so her immigration attorney, John Barry, can prove to the courts why she should be able to stay with her husband and three young children, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
"This is actually a big deal. It's a victory and it's a discretionary decision on the part of [immigration officials]," Barry said. "We appreciated the humanity that they showed to a mother of three to reunite her with the children and her husband."