The border patrol inquisition

Debra J. Saunders

8/25/2006 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

Be a Border Patrol agent, do your job, go to prison. That's how the job must look to agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean.

In February 2005, the agents tried to stop a van driven by drug smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila near the Mexico border. After a scuffle with Compean, Aldrete-Davila fled on foot. Ramos says he believes that he saw a gun -- which the smuggler denies. Both agents fired at Aldrete-Davila, who fell, then continued his escape across the border. After he got away, Ramos and Compean filed a report on the 743 pounds of marijuana they found in the van, but not on the gunfire. As it turns out, Ramos had shot Aldrete-Davila in the butt. A Homeland Security agent heard about the episode, went to Mexico and offered Aldrete-Davila immunity, if he testified against Ramos and Compean.

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, a Bush appointee, prosecuted the agents. In March, a jury found them guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon, discharge of a firearm during a violent crime, obstructing justice, lying about the incident and willfully violating Aldrete-Davila's Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure.

Because there was gunfire, the mandatory-minimum prison sentence the agents will serve is 10 years. The U.S. Probation Office in El Paso, Texas, has recommended 20 years -- 20 years away from their wives and their children, and among the type of people they've put behind bars.

As for Aldrete-Davila, he faces no charges for the 743 pounds of pot. That leaves him free to carry out his plan to sue the Border Patrol -- that is, U.S. taxpayers -- for $5 million because his civil rights were violated. What a country.

Ramos, who was nominated Border Patrol Agent of the year in 2005, told the San Bernardino County Sun, "There's murderers and child rapists that are looking at less time than me."

At the heart of the prosecution is a vehicle-pursuit policy that makes absolutely no sense. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Kanof explained to the Sun, "It is a violation of Border Patrol regulations to go after someone who is fleeing." It's like a no-arrest policy.

No surprise, Border Patrol agents routinely ignore the regs. As Ramos responded to Kanof: "How are we supposed to follow the Border Patrol strategy of apprehending terrorists or drug smugglers if we are not supposed to pursue fleeing people? Everybody who's breaking the law flees from us. What are we supposed to do? Do they want us to catch them or not?"

Maybe the answer is: not. T.J. Bonner, president of the agents' union, the National Border Patrol Council, believes this prosecution will discourage agents from doing their jobs. Worse, the agents go to jail, while the smuggler got immunity -- and an incentive ($5 million) to claim he was unarmed, which can't be verified, because he fled.

Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the case, as she fears this prosecution may represent "a serious miscarriage of justice." It does.

Sutton's office cannot comment on the case until sentencing, but referred me to a statement, that explains, "They were prosecuted because they had fired their weapons at a man who had attempted to surrender, but, while his open hands were held in the air, Agent Compean attempted to hit the man with the butt of his shotgun." Later, the agents picked up shell casings and failed to file a gunfire report.

Sutton's best point: A jury found the two agents guilty of all charges except attempted murder. As Bonner sees it, the most punishment the agents deserve is a five-day suspension for not reporting the shooting. Say, for argument's sake, that the agents were wrong to shoot at Aldrete-Davila. They were wrong to not file a report. Discipline them. Fire them, even. But don't send them to prison for decades for a bad split-second decision and failure to file a report.

If they were crooks, they would serve shorter time. Last month, a Border Patrol agent, who admitted to smuggling 100 illegal immigrants while he served on the Border Patrol, got five years. (Prosecutors had recommended three years, but in San Diego, U.S. District Judge John Houston hiked the sentence, telling the man: "You violated the sacred trust of your comrades. As a link in the chain, they depended on you.")

Compean's attorney, Maria Ramirez, told me that her client, a first-generation American, served honorably in the U.S. Navy, then worked for the Border Patrol. He had a home, now sold, a wife and two children. Another child is on the way. But in the 15 minutes after the agents saw that van, after one split-second judgment call, his life melted away: "In 15 minutes it's gone, just gone."