Kern County prosecutors on Wednesday said they will not file criminal charges against federal immigration agents involved in a crash that killed two farmworkers trying to flee from the agents.
Delano police had asked the district attorney's office to determine whether the two agents, Ramiro Sanchez and Dimas Benitez, should be charged with giving false information to police after statements they made to officers were contradicted by surveillance video.
"First, there is no credible evidence that either agent lied in their statement," said Kern County Dist. Atty. Lisa Green. "And second, I do not believe legally, that is under the law, we can pursue charges of giving false information to a peace officer."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Sanchez and Benitez came under scrutiny after the March 13 crash that killed Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Profecto. The couple, who were in the country illegally, had initially stopped when one of the agents put on his emergency lights to pull them over, but then fled before crashing into a utility pole at high speed.
According to a report by Delano police, an ICE deportation officer told police that, after the initial stop, he was not in "pursuit with emergency lights/sirens." But surveillance video showed the immigration officers' cars traveling in the same direction as the couple's vehicle with their emergency lights activated.
In a review of the surveillance video, Green said, the two agents appear to be obeying traffic rules and "neither agents' vehicle appeared to be overtaking the Ford." Surveillance video showed an unidentified civilian vehicle in between the couple's car and the agents' vehicles, Green said, and the civilian was operating the car in a normal manner "and did not appear to be yielding to any law enforcement activity."
"As to the lights, which were on, it is a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that the emergency lights that were activated for the traffic stop remained on after he jumped in his vehicle to follow the Ford," Green said.
Green noted that Sanchez was never asked by Delano police if he had turned his lights off after the initial traffic stop.
"As to Agent Benitez, he stated they were obeying all traffic regulations and he was not engaged in a 'pursuit,'" Green said.
Green said that a "pursuit" describes actively attempting to apprehend a suspect who is attempting to avoid arrest while operating a motor vehicle at high speed and using evasive driving techniques.
"Were the agents following the Ford? Yes. Were they speeding and or passing cars in order to catch up to the Ford or to actively apprehend the people in the Ford? No," Green said. "That is not depicted on the video evidence nor in any of the witness statements that were provided to us."
Additionally, Green noted, in order to have violated the statute, a false statement would need to pertain to a material fact.
"These statements are not material," Green said. "The only way they could be considered material is if the pursuit with lights and sirens was a factor in the cause of the accident. Three civilian witnesses who were interviewed by the Delano Police Department stated the Ford Explorer was not being chased or followed by any law enforcement vehicles at the time of the accident. Those witnesses statement, in combination with the Delano Police Department's conclusion that the primary collision factor was an unsafe turn with an associated factor of unsafe speed on the part of the occupants of the vehicle of the Ford, leads me to find that the statements are not material."
After the announcement, the United Farm Workers Foundation expressed frustration over the decision not to pursue charges.
"Santos Hilario and Marcelina did not get justice today from the Kern County district attorney, and they deserve it," Diana Tellefson Torres, the executive director of the foundation, said in a statement. "They were farm workers who worked hard to provide for their family. They and their six orphaned children are just the latest casualties of the federal government's recent targeting of hardworking immigrant farm workers who feed all of us."
Sanchez, one of the deportation officers, told police that on the morning of the crash, he and colleagues were conducting surveillance on an apartment in order to detain Celestino Hilario-Garcia, who was targeted for removal from the country.
Sanchez said that a colleague witnessed Santos Hilario Garcia, whom they mistook for Celestino Hilario-Garcia, enter a vehicle in front of the apartment, along with a woman and a girl.
Sanchez and Benitez followed the car in black, unmarked Jeeps as the couple dropped their daughter off at school. Shortly afterward, Sanchez activated his emergency lights to signal the car to pull over.
Santos Hilario Garcia complied, but as Sanchez got out of his car, the couple's vehicle sped away, the report said, and eventually crashed. Garcia, 35, and, Profecto, 33, both died at the scene.
Though Garcia matched the description of the arrest target, he was not the same individual, according to ICE.
Santos Hilario Garcia had been convicted in 2014 of driving under the influence and was voluntarily returned to Mexico three times between 2008 and 2017. Last year, he was removed under the provisions of expedited removal. Profecto had no prior encounters with ICE.
In an earlier statement, the immigration agency cited sanctuary policies that "have pushed ICE out of jails" and "force our officers to conduct more enforcement in the community — which poses increased risks for law enforcement and the public."
"It also increases the likelihood that ICE will encounter other illegal aliens who previously weren't on our radar," ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said.
The case came amid rising tension between local agencies and ICE in California, as officials and police have to choose whether they will cooperate more with the immigration agency or abide by the state's "sanctuary" laws, intended to protect immigrants in the country illegally.
Delano's interim police chief, Raul Alvizo, has stressed that in referring the case to the district attorney, his department was only trying to do its "due diligence."
"It's not any different than say, for example, you were involved in a traffic accident and there was some issues there. We're going to send it to our D.A.," Alvizo said in an interview last week. "Because we don't want anybody to come back and say that we're hiding or we're trying to cover up for anybody. We're doing it the way we do it for anybody else."
12:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Kern County Dist. Atty. Lisa Green.