Charges will not be pressed against two federal immigration agents who Delano Police Department officials said lied about pursuing a couple they suspected of being in the country illegally and died during a collision while fleeing, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced Wednesday.
Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Profecto Garcia died in a vehicle collision March 13 after being stopped by ICE agents in Delano. They fled the area after being pulled over, then crashed on West Cecil Avenue.
ICE Agents told Delano PD that they were not in “pursuit with emergency lights/siren,” but Delano PD said they uncovered surveillance footage showing the two agents were following the couple with their lights on before the collision.
Local law enforcement asked Green to review the case, seeking charges against the federal agents for lying to peace officers under Vehicle Code Section 31. They called the ICE agents’ statements “inaccurate and dishonest.”
“There is no credible evidence that either agent lied in their statement to Delano Police Officer Nino, and … I do not believe that legally we can pursue charges of giving false information to a peace officer pursuant to Vehicle Code Section 31.”
Green said Wednesday morning that the traffic stop and subsequent events had nothing to do with the fatal collision.
“They were not the cause of the crash,” Green said, referring to federal immigration agents Ramiro Sanchez and Dimas Benitez. “They had nothing to do with the crash.”
Instead, Green said, the crash was caused by reckless driving and a sharp turn that led the vehicle to overturn.
ICE officials and Delano Police Chief Raul Alvizo declined to comment on the announcement Wednesday.
The collision and resulting deaths have become a flashpoint of the national immigration debate, as federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have begun stepping up enforcement across California in response to state sanctuary state laws that make it more difficult for agents to arrest undocumented criminals in jails. ICE Director Thomas Homan warned Californians this year to “hold on tight” before vowing to send more agents into the state to conduct at-large operations that have spread fear in rural Central Valley farming communities, including those locally.
The enforcement came to a head when the Garcias died while fleeing immigration agents in Delano. Santos Hilario Garcia was a Mexican national, according to ICE, but was not the subject of the targeted enforcement efforts agents were conducting. He did, however, fit the description, ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said.
The incident began before 7 a.m. on a school day. ICE agents surveilling the the Garcias before they got into their Ford Explorer Sport Trac with one of their children, according to the DA’s office. ICE agents initiated a traffic stop in two separate, unmarked Jeeps after the Garcias dropped their student off at Robert Kennedy High School. The traffic stop took place after the Garcias turned north onto Cecil Avenue from Hiett Avenue, according to Green.
The agents activated their emergency lights, and the Garcias pulled over. As agents got out of their cars, the Ford fled the area “at a high rate of speed and continued westbound on Cecil Avenue,” Green said.
Both agents returned to their Jeeps and followed the Ford. Their lights were still activated.
After a brief period — Green said it was unclear how long — the agents stopped following the Ford because Garcia was driving “recklessly and passing other motorists at a high rate of speed.” The agents pulled over and discussed the situation. It’s unclear how long they were pulled over, Green said.
They decided to look for the Ford, and found it crashed on West Cecil Avenue. The length of time between the agents pulling over their Jeeps and finding the crash site was not determined, Green said.
ICE agents were not “pursuing,” the couple, Green said, but rather “following” them. There’s a legal distinction, she said. A pursuit, Green said, 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.”
The distinction includes whether agents were operating lights and sirens (they were operating lights, but it’s unclear whether sirens were on because surveillance footage had no audio), and whether they were exceeding the speed limit. Those things would help constitute a pursuit, Green said.
But ICE agents didn’t appear to be speeding on the surveillance footage provided and didn’t overtake a civilian vehicle driving on West Cecil Road, where the speed limit it 60 mph. No witnesses provided statements suggesting agents were speeding, either.
There were three civilian witnesses interviewed, Green continued, and none of them said that the Ford was being followed or chased by police at the time of the collision.
“It appears to me, from my review of the surveillance video, that both agents were obeying traffic rules,” Green said.
Green said she could not determine the agents’ intent as they followed the Garcias.
The only way the DA’s office could have pursued charges, Green said, is if it could be proved that the lights and sirens being on was a factor in the collision. That would have constituted material evidence, she said, citing People v Morera-Munoz, case law establishing that a violation of Vehicle Code Section 31 must rise to the level of “corrupting an investigation” to support filing charges.
But agents who conducted an initial traffic stop and later followed the Garcias after they fled, didn’t cause the collision, Green said.
Rather, Green said, “It was an unsafe turn.”