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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On the evening of February 18, local activist Carlos Rojas plead guilty to a charge of "disorderly conduct" and paid a fine of $500 at the New Brunswick Municpal Court in downtown.
As we reported in October 2013, Rojas was unexpectedly arrested at the Hyatt Regency Hotel during the 2013 gala for the New Brunswick-based organization Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey (LLA-NJ).
Rojas, who originally arrested for "criminal trespassing," told New Brunswick Today why he accepted the lesser charge: "I'm in my first five years of my legal residency status, but if I was a U.S. citizen your best bet is I would have taken that trial."
"Criminal trespassing stays on my record as a criminal offense," Rojas said in a phone interview. He said that he did not want to go to trial due to the chance of losing, paying a bigger fine, and potentially losing his legal U.S. residency.
Criminal trespassing is defined on the official New Jersey Courts Criminal Charges website:
In order for defendant to be convicted of this offense, the State must prove the following
elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
(1) That the defendant (entered) (surreptitiously remained)… in any (research facility) (structure) (or a separately secured or occupied portion thereof), and
(2) That the defendant did so knowing that (he/she) had no right to enter or to be there at that time.
"Knowing" under this statute means that defendant was aware that he/she was not
licensed or privileged to (enter) (surreptitiously remain) in or that defendant was
aware of the high probability that he/she was not so licensed or privileged.
When Rojas appeared in Municpal Court on February 18 to settle the matter, Judge Philip A. Borow asked him if he was asked to leave the premesis by hotel management. Rojas replied "yes," and also explained that he refused to leave at first.
Borow then asked Rojas if he believed if he was "supposed to be there" that night, to which Rojas replied "yes."
This created some confusion and a long pause of silence in the court room, before Borrow asked Rojas if he understood the charge against him.
"I gave a brief summary of the situation," Rojas explains to New Brunswick Today. "I could tell the judge did not know what had happened. I did not mention any politican's name."
"I knew I did nothing wrong. I personally don't feel I was guilty, but I didn't want to put my legal status on the line."
That same night, Rojas published a heated Facebook status after paying $500 to New Brunswick Municpal Court.
"I'm tired of injustices! I had no choice but to plea guilty for my arrest at the LATINO LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE OF NEW JERSEY – LLANJ's Gala," read the status. "Now I have to deal with an unjust arrest on my criminal record and pay for fines and court fees."
The guest speaker that night was Governor Chris Christie, whose support for the NJ Dream Act was being questioned.
Rojas, who has been a legal U.S. resident since 2010, purchased a $150 ticket for the event hoping to get a chance to speak with the Governor about the bill.
More than 300 people attended the LLA-NJ gala, where Gov. Christie unexpectedly first announced his support of the bill.
An hour before, Rojas had been led away in handcuffs by city police.
Rojas' lawyer John P. Leschak explained to the judge that he had "reviewed the law with Mr. Rojas," and that he understands the charges.
Borow told the court he was still "curious" as to why Carlos Rojas said he felt like he was supposed to be at the gala. He asked Mr. Rojas to recount the events of the evening.
Rojas said he worked with LLA-NJ for a few years, and had been invited to attend the gala, but when he arrived he was asked to leave.
"The manager told me it's a private event and you've been uninvited," Rojas continues to tell New Brunswick Today. "I paid my ticket, so I feel it's a public event and I had no intention of leaving."
New Brunswick Today still has the only media coverage of the arrest. Our story garnered over 4,000 views, leaving many residents, activists, and students wondering what happened to Rojas after his arrest.
In January, Christie signed the NJ Dream Act into law, granting equal tuition to undocumented students, many of whom came to the country as small children. Previously, undocumented non-citizens would have to pay almost double the in-state rates, even if they were NJ residents.
Rojas' arrest was the subject of much controversy as supporters of the legislation splintered into pro-Christie and anti-Christie factions, as his November re-election drew closer.
The two groups feuded over whether or not to give the undocumented students, affectionately known to their supporters as "dreamers," equal access to financial aid to help pay for college. Ultimately, the Governor and legislators sided with those who opposed including financial aid equality in the bill.
LLA-NJ supported Christie throughout the controversy, but Rojas and others lamented the deal that resulted to omit financial aid from the bill.
Mahonrry Hidalgo, Chair of the LLA-NJ Immigration Committee, stated in a phone interview, "The Latino Leadership Alliance had no involvement in Mr. Rojas' arrest."
"The arrest happened during an activity at the hotel. It's a matter between Mr. Rojas and the hotel."
But the Hyatt declined to comment on anything related to the Carlos Rojas' arrest or his court date.
The official police report, signed by New Brunswick officer Anthony Abode, reads that Carlos Rojas was "given verbal notice to leave," but the report does not specify by which party specifically.
Rojas explained that he was at the hotel that evening, representing the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition (NJDAC), to "listen to what [Christie] was going to say, to see if he was going to say anything about tuition equity for immigrant students, and if he didn't, I wanted to ask a question."
"It's not really weird that people want to ask him questions," said Rojas. "He wants to secure the Latino vote. I feel it was important to be there, especially for me as a Latino at a Latino event."
"I don't think LLA-NJ should be shielding the governor. If anything, LLA should be highlighting the concerns of the Latino community instead of removing me."