A Snohomish County defense investigator is now a defendant after he allegedly discouraged a man from testifying in court, by warning him he could be deported if he showed up to a trial.
Michael Joseph Powers, 60, was arrested this month for investigation of tampering with a witness, a felony, for how he questioned a Spanish-speaking man about an assault in Monroe.
Powers was looking into an attack that left the man bloodied and bruised, with swollen lips and knots above his eyes, in early 2016. Two gang members were charged with second-degree assault, according to court papers. Charges were filed a year later. Powers, a member of the defense team, first spoke with the victim sometime in 2017. According to Monroe police reports, he pressed the man about his confidence in the attackers’ identities.
“Are you sure? Are you sure?” Powers asked, with such insistence that an interpreter felt uncomfortable and cut off the interview, according to the reports. Powers later left her a voicemail, trying to find out if the man was in the country legally.
“I just don’t want him being brought into court to testify, and then to find out there’s problems with his immigration status,” he said. “They will yank him and pull him back to Mexico, and he’s got a family here. So I don’t want that happening.”
The man told a deputy prosecutor about the interview, just before another meeting with Powers in September. According to the man’s report, Powers had told him the prosecutor’s office would have him arrested if he showed up to court. The prosecutor told him she didn’t care about his immigration status, and that she was sorry about Powers’ questions.
The second interview was recorded. Present were the victim, a victim advocate, the prosecutor and a public defender.
Powers asked the man if he was in the country legally. The prosecutor objected and said the man wouldn’t answer that line of questioning.
Powers asked the man if he had any restrictions on being in the United States. The prosecutor objected again and told Powers to move on.
Powers asked the man if he’d ever been charged with a crime in Mexico.
The interview lasted more than an hour. Afterward, the public defender apologized for Powers’ questions.
People who are undocumented are often shut out of the American legal system when they are victims of crimes, because of fears that showing up to court—just like any interaction with the police, lawyers, bill collectors or even neighbors—could set the wheels in motion for deportation, said Sandra Huber, who works with immigrants at the Verdant Health Commission.
“They’re terrified,” she said. “You have to contend with whatever it is that happened, but also the fear that you might not come home.”
Today’s turbulent climate around immigration has added to the stress.
“For you and for me, if an officer pulls you over, it’s a nuisance,” Huber said. “A broken light, an expired license plate, a brake light, something that simple—that you and I take for granted—could mean the destruction of a family.”
Monroe detective Sgt. Barry Hatch sat down in October with the man who had been beaten. He told the detective that Powers seemed to be discouraging him from testifying against the defendants, rather than looking out for his welfare.
“Well, he did scare me because, well, since I have family here,” the man told the detective, in a recorded interview. “He told me that—well, he started to ask me about my immigration status and—and he told me if I didn’t know that there could be immigration (authorities) at the courts if I didn’t have papers, and that they could deport me to Mexico.”
A crime victim’s immigration status is not relevant to pursuing justice, according to Monroe police.
“It is especially not relevant to an assault case,” Hatch told The Daily Herald.
Prosecutors would not seek to have a crime victim detained because of immigration status, Snohomish County chief criminal deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson said.
“That does not ever happen,” he said. “Ever.”
Powers has operated Washington Legal Works since March 1999, according to police.
At least once before, Prosecutor Mark Roe considered criminal charges against Powers for an incident in 2008, when Powers sent text messages to a teenage sex abuse victim, pretending to be the ex-principal who was charged with raping her. Powers was trying to persuade her to meet with the defense team. Court records show no felony charges were filed against Powers in that case.
In the Monroe assault case, Powers had been working as an investigator, alongside an attorney who was assigned by the Snohomish County Office of Public Defense. In the case where he is a defendant, he has hired Mark Mestel, a private attorney. Police reports have been forwarded to the Island County Prosecutor’s Office for review.
Powers could not be reached for comment. Mestel declined to talk about specifics of the case Friday.
“Other than to reinforce my belief Mr. Powers didn’t commit a crime,” he said, “I don’t really have anything else to say.”
A version of this story first appeared in The Everett Daily Herald.