Dropped human smuggling case reveals shortcomings of ‘coyote’ law
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” A month ago, Enrique Alberto Lopez-Baca sat in the Summit County Jail facing a maximum of 96 years in prison for six felony human smuggling charges, stemming from his arrest in November at a Frisco fast-food restaurant.
Today, the 27-year-old illegal immigrant is free, despite a new law designed to crack down on “coyotes” by making human smuggling a felony that could be tried at the state level.
Lopez-Baca was accused of charging a van full of illegal immigrants up to $2,300 each to bring them across the border for work in the U.S.
Frisco police officers arrested Lopez-Baca on Nov. 29 after a tip led them to the restaurant where the group of 17 was eating.
The case against him would have been the first of its kind prosecuted in Summit County under a law adopted last May. But on Jan. 9, Summit County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert dropped all the charges against Lopez-Baca, except for one count of obstructing a peace officer. Lopez-Baca pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor, spent 60 days in jail ” 42 of which he’d already served at the time of sentencing ” and was deported back to Mexico.
Hurlbert said he had no choice but to dismiss the more serious charges because federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had deported all the witnesses in the case by the time he heard about it four days after the arrests occurred.
“We try to work with ICE on (keeping potential witnesses in-state) and this happened so fast that they had them deported before we even had police reports,” Hurlbert said, adding that the group had been sent back to Mexico 12 hours after the incident.
Hurlbert’s lead investigator spent hours on the telephone talking to ICE officials and Mexican authorities trying to locate the group, to no avail.
“We tried hard to find them,” he said.
Regional ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok said a district attorney’s office must contact ICE and notify them that somebody in federal custody could be needed as a witness in a state case to arrange a transfer into state custody. ICE can’t detain folks held on federal immigration charges “specifically and exclusively” to accommodate state charges, he said.
“One of the things I want to emphasize is we can’t just say, ‘We’ve got people in custody under immigration charges. We’ll hold these folks for you as long as you want.’ That doesn’t happen. That can’t happen,” Rusnok said.
As soon as travel documents are obtained for illegals in federal custody, which can take anywhere from a couple days to months depending on the country of origin, they’re sent home, Rusnok said.
Rusnok would not comment on where the communication breakdown may have occurred in this case, saying, “I’m just telling you what has to happen.”
Hurlbert acknowledged there are still kinks to be worked out in light of the new law both at the federal and local levels. He’s part of a group working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE on some of the issues, and also plans to meet with the local police chiefs and the sheriff to discuss the best way to notify ICE “that we might want to keep these people around.”
When one of the local police departments ascertains that a group of people is in the country illegally during, say, a traffic stop, the officer typically transports those people to the Summit County Jail.
If an illegal immigrant is charged with a crime at the state level, that person is booked into the jail and stays there until his or her local charges are resolved, and then is released into ICE custody to face federal immigration charges. If the immigrants have not committed a state crime, like the witnesses in the Lopez-Baca case, the jail notifies ICE, then holds the group in the patrol room, feeds them and sometimes even provides medication, while waiting for immigration officials to arrive, Sheriff John Minor said.
Because folks in that situation haven’t committed a state crime, the jail cannot legally detain them and must turn them over to ICE, Minor said.
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that in the human smuggling cases, we call ICE, (and) they just come trotting down and take them away. It’s like, ‘Wow, what do we do for witnesses?'” Minor said.
He said that the process is something that needs to be discussed in the future with ICE, Hurlbert and the local police departments.
Despite this case, the process has worked properly elsewhere in Hurlbert’s district.
On Nov. 27, Jose Francisco Franco-Rodriguez, 23, was allegedly driving a van packed with 14 people through Clear Creek County when he crashed, killing three men and a pregnant woman.
The surviving passengers, some of whom were hospitalized after the accident, are being held as witnesses for Franco-Rodriguez’s trial.
Franco-Rodriguez is charged with felony transporting unlawfully aliens in the United States resulting in death and unlawful reentry of a previously deported alien.
Hurlbert agreed to drop state charges in that case so that federal prosecutors could proceed. However, one of his deputy district attorneys will work the case with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said.
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