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California

Judge tosses drug case amid claims that L.A. County sheriff’s team targeted Latinos on I-5

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A deputy on the L.A. County sheriff’s Domestic Highway Enforcement team inspects a car on the 5 Freeway last year.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge dismissed a drug trafficking case Thursday after defense attorneys argued that their clients were arrested by a controversial Los Angeles County sheriff’s team they accused of illegally singling out Latino drivers on a rural stretch of the 5 Freeway.

Defendants Jose Eduardo Carrillo and Miguel Angel Carrillo Garcia were arrested in September 2016 when a deputy on the team stopped their Acura SUV and found about 9 kilograms of methamphetamine in the back seat, according to court records.

In a motion filed this month, the federal public defender’s office argued the traffic stop was one of thousands by the team targeting Latino motorists on the stretch of the interstate north of Santa Clarita.

The motion cited a Times investigation published last year that found that 69% of drivers stopped by the team were Latino and that two-thirds of them had their vehicles searched — a higher rate than for motorists of other racial and ethnic groups. Cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time.

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By contrast, Latinos made up 43% of motorists who were issued citations by the California Highway Patrol on the same stretch of freeway during a six-month period last year, according to an inspector general’s office report released in April. The report found that the team’s work “had a constitutionally troubling impact on Latino drivers.”

The drug team was suspended last year after county Inspector Gen. Max Huntsman said a preliminary investigation by his office found the unit was “inherently built to violate the constitutional rights of a vast number of people passing through the I-5 Freeway.”

Prosecutors filed a motion on Wednesday asking U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder to dismiss the case. The judge ordered the immediate release of the two defendants on Thursday.

The case marked the first time that charges based on the team’s work were dismissed amid legal claims of discriminatory police practices. Such arguments face a high legal hurdle in court and are rarely successful, said Carl Gunn, a former federal public defender now in private practice.

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Still, many of the other federal cases based on the team’s work have also fallen apart as the credibility of some deputies came under fire and judges ruled that deputies violated the rights of motorists by conducting unconstitutional searches.

Of 23 cases filed by federal prosecutors, 12 have been dismissed outright. In another, the government dismissed all of the drug charges in a deal that allowed a defendant to plead guilty to a far less serious charge of failing to appear for a court hearing. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

In the remaining 10 cases, the defendants pleaded guilty to drug charges in deals with prosecutors.

“Racial profiling is illegal and violates the Constitution’s core promise of equal protection under the law,” Georgina Wakefield, a deputy public defender who worked on the case, said in a statement. Commending the U.S. attorney’s office for seeking the dismissal, Wakefield called on prosecutors to review all pending cases and prior convictions based on the sheriff’s team’s work.

“We believe the illegal practices used by the [team] were not limited to this one stop,” she said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. Emails to the Sheriff’s Department seeking comment were not returned.

The case dismissed on Thursday began when Deputy Michael Vann stopped Carrillo for following another vehicle too closely and speeding on the northbound 5 Freeway. During the traffic stop, Carrillo and his passenger seemed extremely nervous and Garcia eventually gave the deputy consent to search the vehicle, prosecutors alleged.

In her motion, Wakefield said Vann’s actions amounted to selective enforcement based on Carrillo’s Latino ethnicity, violating his 14th Amendment right to be free from discrimination.

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Wakefield identified four other cases in which she said Vann stopped motorists after running their license plate information through his patrol car computer and discovering that their cars were registered to someone with a Latino surname.

“Thus, Deputy Vann had some awareness that the driver of the car was Latino before he pre-textually stopped the car,” the motion said.

All four of the other cases were dismissed by judges or at the request of prosecutors, according to the motion.

The federal public defender’s office also pointed to a statement made last month by Sheriff Alex Villanueva in reference to the drug enforcement team efforts in which he said the deputies might have “started with the best of intentions, but over time they got ... a profile that had too much of a component that was constitutionally impermissible.”

Sheriff’s officials said they launched the highway team as a response to a spate of drug overdoses in the Santa Clarita area, although the inspector general said the team has not been effective in reducing overdoses. Similar units operate around the country as part of a federal program designed to use local and federal law enforcement agencies to combat drug trafficking.

Last month, Villanueva said that he plans to revive the drug team but that the unit would follow strict constitutional guidelines to prevent racial profiling.

The sheriff told The Times that a new team of specialized narcotics officers is expected to begin drug enforcement operations later this year. He said the former team fell short of department standards in how they treated Latino drivers.

Villanueva said the revamped team would be given a different name and would consist of some deputies who are native Spanish speakers. The sheriff did not specify how large the unit would be or what reforms would be made before operations resume. He said the unit would have to balance its mission to disrupt the flow of drugs from Mexico with its legal duty not to violate the constitutional rights of drivers.

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