Tuesday, October 28, 2014



Note: A "system" in serious need of reform?

AG bringing smuggling prosecutions to local courts
Posted: Friday, October 24, 2014 7:59 am | Updated: 10:38 am, Fri Oct 24, 2014.
By Curt Prendergast
Nogales International


Drug-related arrests made by federal law enforcement officers at federal facilities have found yet another avenue for prosecution in Santa Cruz County courts.

The Arizona Attorney's Office has recently begun taking federal case referrals and filing state charges in the local court system, such as the felony offense it levied against Jesus Islava-Rojo, a 47-year-old Nogales man allegedly caught March 3 at the Border Patrol's checkpoint on Interstate 19 with 29 pounds of marijuana hidden inside a spare tire.

Cases like Islava-Rojo's have poured into the local court system in recent years, adding a heavy load of prosecutions that involve people arrested by federal authorities at federal facilities for violating federal laws – but that can also be prosecuted under state statutes. During a candidate forum in Nogales last week, long-time local defense attorney and recently appointed Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink said that as many as 50 percent of criminal cases that now go through the Santa Cruz County court system involve federal crimes.

But while the county court system does not receive any additional funding to cover the costs of processing these cases, they can mean big bucks for local prosecuting agencies, which receive federal grants to aid their efforts and who reap the benefits of civil forfeitures that often accompany cross-border crime. At the Santa Cruz County Attorney's Office, which has traditionally prosecuted these cases, racketeering seizures bring in about $1 million annually.

Now the Arizona Attorney General's Office is getting in on the action. But it won't say why.
"We're not going to talk right now about any of the targeted enforcement operations we've got going on now down there," said Stephanie Grisham, press officer for the AG's Office.

The prosecutions brought by the AG's Office add more cases to the county court system, said County Attorney George Silva.

That's because the cross-border criminal cases prosecuted by Silva's office are generated by the multi-agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-led HIDTA Task Force, and there have been no changes in that process that would "share" those prosecutions with the state prosecutor.

ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley confirmed that there had been no change to her agency's process for presenting cases, and Cosme Lopez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said there was no new arrangement with his office to refer cases to the Arizona AG. It appeared – though was not confirmed – that the AG's Office is accepting referrals directly from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol.

Some of the AG's cases, such as the 29-pound pot bust at the I-19 checkpoint in March, likely will result in seizure of the vehicle used in the alleged offense. Seized assets can be auctioned off and turned into revenue following a formal civil forfeiture, and cash seized in an alleged offense can also be added to government coffers.

"We have worked out an agreement where the County Attorney's Office will get the majority of the asset funds," Silva said, but added that the AG's Office will "definitely" be seeing revenue from asset seizures.
Additional impact

The lack of funding to compensate local courts for handling federal arrest cases has been an issue in the current campaign for judge at Santa Cruz County Superior Court.

Fink, who is running for the judge's seat he currently holds by appointment, said during the Oct. 8 candidate debate in Nogales that the drugs that cross the border in Santa Cruz County are "going to some other place in the United States" and are the responsibility of the federal government, "not the burden or responsibility of the taxpayers of this county."

His opponent, Nogales City Magistrate Mayra Galindo, called the addition of federal crimes to the court's workload "onerous." "I do believe that we should receive some sort of federal funding to alleviate this burden," she said.

In addition to the impact on the courts, when federal detainees become state court defendants, they turn from a source of revenue for the cash-strapped Santa Cruz County Adult Detention Center to an additional financial burden.

According to Sheriff Antonio Estrada, the prosecutions now being brought by the AG's Office have resulted in a "handful" of inmates being housed at the county jail. And while a federal detainee brings in $65 per day, the jail cannot charge the state government for housing its inmates.

When state charges are filed against a suspect arrested at a port of entry or Border Patrol checkpoint, "the whole system kicks in," including the jail, prosecution, defense, juries and probation, Estrada said.
"Obviously, that has a financial impact on the county," he said.

Estrada said he met with representatives from the AG's Office and they promised to be "mindful" of the economic impact on Santa Cruz County. But he also noted the federal government's role in creating the burden. "Everything that comes over, across this border illegally is a federal responsibility," he said.

Estrada recalled a time in the 1960s when there was a very different arrangement for prosecuting cross-border crime in Santa Cruz County. In those days, he said, when a local police officer caught someone smuggling drugs, they would turn them over to federal customs officers, who would assume the costs of processing the cases.

However, "things changed" in the 1970s, he said, and since then the feds have been shifting the burden to local entities. "For too long, the taxpayers of Santa Cruz County have been paying for this," he said.


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