Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Former Border Patrol Agents' Convictions Largely Affirmed

This is a Fifth Circuit decision, but it happened in El Paso, TX, right next door to me, so I'm including it here. The decision is available here.

The Fifth Circuit yesterday mostly affirmed the convictions and sentences of former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, convicted of various crimes after they shot an unarmed drug smuggler as he ran back to Mexico (he succeeded in escaping, too). The Court affirmed the convictions for assault, discharge of a weapon in the commission of a crime of violence, and deprivation of civil rights, and reversed the convictions for tampering with an official proceeding.

The agents were engaged in routine law enforcement near Fabens, TX, when they chased an alien drug smuggler in a van as he sped towards the border. He abandoned the van and ran on foot for Mexico, with the agents chasing him. They fired their weapons several times and hit him once, in the buttocks, but he made his get-away. The agents then covered up the incident, by picking up the spent shells and not reporting the occurrence. Unfortunately for the El Paso agents, the victim was a personal friend of an Arizona Border Patrol agent, who learned of and subsequently initiated an investigation into the shooting. Ultimately, the bullet was removed from the victim and matched with Ramos' weapon.

The Fifth had little patience for the pair's claim of insufficient evidence, saying:
"The jury was the fact-finder. The jury heard all of the evidence. The jury returned the verdict. The jury did not believe the Border Patrol agents. It convicted them. The government's evidence, if believed, is sufficient to uphold the convictions. And that is pretty close to the bottom line on guilt or innocence of these agents."

Apparently responding to the media hue and cry over the lengthy sentences imposed on the defendants -- 11 years and one day for one, and 12 years for the other -- the court noted that the bulk of the sentences was the result of the mandatory 10-year sentences for the 924(c) convictions.

In a lengthy discussion, it rejected the defendants' claims that the trial court improperly limited their presentation of testimony and the cross-examination of the victim, Aldrete-Avila, by preventing them from eliciting evidence of the value of the drugs Aldrete-Avila was transporting at the time of the shooting and his alleged involvement in another incident of drug smuggling. There is an interesting discussion of how defendants' sixth amendment rights intersect and are affected by a witness's fifth amendment privilege and the effect of the immunity agreement the prosecution had with Aldrete-Avila.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the agents' argument that the application of 18 USC 924(c) violated the defendants' due process rights because the agents had no warning that the statute could apply to law enforcement officers carrying out their duties. The Court made clear that its analysis assumed that the officers acted without lawful justification, and the court was not considering whether 924(c) could be applied to officers otherwise acting lawfully in carrying out their duties. The court looked at the text of the statute and concluded that it applied to "any person" without any exception for law enforcement officers, and that a police officer's unjustifiable shooting of a victim who poses no threat is a crime of violence.

However, the Fifth reversed the 1512 convictions, concluding that an internal agency investigation is not an official proceeding within the meaning of the statute. The court concludes that, even if it was not sure of this interpretation, the meaning of the term is ambiguous and accordingly it actually applies the rules of choosing the more limited interpretation and lenity. So, the agents get a resentencing on the remaining counts, but they still have to get at least 10 year sentences.