Border officer convicted of using excessive force in 2019 arrest, then lying about it
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was found guilty Wednesday of abusing his law enforcement powers during a violent arrest at the Calexico Port of Entry, then lying about it.
A San Diego federal jury returned the verdict against Marcos Valenzuela after less than two hours of deliberations following a two-day trial that included video and audio evidence of the Aug. 16, 2019, confrontation.
Valenzuela, 30, of El Centro, was convicted on one count of deprivation of rights under color of law and one count of falsifying records in a federal investigation.
The incident started with an altercation in the pre-primary area of the border crossing between Jose “Andy” Lopez and a motorcyclist, who were both waiting to be inspected in Valenzuela’s lane, prosecutors said in a brief outlining the trial evidence.
Lopez, a U.S. citizen who lives across the border in Mexicali, was crossing in his Toyota Camry when the motorcyclist appeared to be jockeying for position in line, he previously told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Lopez honked his horn at the motorcyclist and opened his door to stand up and yell, drawing the officer’s attention.
The officer told Lopez to get back in his vehicle, but Lopez ignored him and yelled that the motorcyclist had hit his car and should pay for damage, the motorcyclist told prosecutors. Valenzuela then threatened to throw Lopez to the ground if he didn’t get in his car, prosecutors said.
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When it was the motorcyclist’s turn to be inspected at the booth, Valenzuela spoke with him in Spanish and then told the motorcyclist: “I’m going to f— him up right now,” prosecutors said.
It was Lopez’s turn next, and he drove up with his identification outstretched. Valenzuela started, “All right, bro. Check it out. I already called upstairs ...” and then told Lopez the motorcyclist didn’t do anything wrong.
Lopez tried to interject with questions and explain his side in fits and starts but was constantly interrupted by the officer.
Valenzuela then ordered Lopez out of the car. As Lopez started to comply, Valenzuela opened the door and yanked him out by his arm, shoving him into the corner of the open door and taking him to the ground with an arm around his neck, landing on top of him, according to video evidence. Valenzuela then commanded Lopez to not resist arrest and to “calm down,” with Lopez pleading that he wasn’t resisting and that he was calm.
Lopez suffered scrapes to his forehead and arms as a result of the force, prosecutors said.
A bloodied Lopez was detained for questioning but ultimately released.
Prosecutors said in a pretrial brief that while in the secondary inspection office, Valenzuela spoke with other CBP officers and “made numerous misrepresentations about his interaction with [Lopez] in an effort to portray [Lopez] as aggressive and resistant to inspection, thus presumably justifying his excessive use of force.”
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Valenzuela made similar statements in his written report that followed — statements that were ultimately contradicted by surveillance video, prosecutors said.
Valenzuela testified in his own defense at trial, maintaining that Lopez resisted arrest and saying that the false statements in his reports had actually been statements made by Lopez, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Valenzuela, who joined CBP in 2016 and is married to a fellow officer, was placed on restricted duty after the incident and later on paid administrative leave after being indicted in April.
Ryan Koseor, CBP port director for Calexico, said the overwhelming majority of officers perform their duties with honor and distinction.
“We do not tolerate abuse within our ranks, and condemn actions that would tarnish the reputation of our agency,” Koseor said in a statement. “I appreciate the work of our partners to investigate this officer for using excessive force and to bring this case to trial. As public servants, we are rightly held to a higher standard of conduct and are subject to the same laws and rules that apply to private citizens.”
A sentencing date has been set tentatively for July 8.
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