A former deputy sheriff who said he fired shots at a sport utility vehicle after the driver tried to run him down was sentenced yesterday in federal court in Del Rio, Texas, to one year and one day in prison and ordered to pay $5,347 in damages to an illegal alien injured in the incident.
U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson also ordered Edwards County Deputy Sheriff Guillermo F. Hernandez to serve three years supervised probation and to pay an additional $5,000 fine.
Hernandez, 25, has been held without bail since his Dec. 1 conviction on charges of violating “under the color of law” the civil rights of Maricela Rodriguez-Garcia. The woman, a Mexican national, was being smuggled into the United States when she was struck in the lip by metal fragments after an 11:50 p.m. traffic stop in Rocksprings, Texas, in April 2005.
Hernandez told investigators and Edwards County Sheriff Donald G. Letsinger that the driver of the vehicle tried to run him down after he stopped him for running a red light. He said as he approached the vehicle on foot, he spotted at least eight persons lying down inside it. He said he fired shots at its rear tires as it sped off.
Sheriff Letsinger has questioned why U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton — who last year also convicted two U.S. Border Patrol agents who shot a drug-smuggling suspect as he fled back into Mexico — ever brought charges. The sheriff said Hernandez “followed the letter of the law” in defending himself in the incident.
But in a statement, Mr. Sutton said a jury of 12 Texans heard the evidence and unanimously found Hernandez guilty of using unreasonable and unlawful deadly force when he repeatedly fired into the back of a fleeing vehicle he knew was loaded with people and not a threat to him.
“In America, we admire our law-enforcement officers for their courage and dedication,” he said. “However, police officers are not above the law they enforce.”
Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, said the deputy fired shots at the rear tires of a fleeing vehicle after the driver attempted to run him over. Mr. Johnson said that although an initial investigation cleared the deputy, the Justice Department began its own investigation a year later based on the testimony of illegal aliens in the van.
“This is the third law-enforcement official protecting the border unjustly convicted for doing his job by the office of U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton,” Mr. Johnson said, calling on President Bush to pardon the deputy. “What kind of mixed signals are we sending to those enforcing the law along our borders?
“Protect our borders … but we won’t protect you when illegal immigrants try to run you over,” he said.
Paul Kamenar, senior executive counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, said he was disappointed the court did not give probation to the deputy as his group had urged in a brief, but happy the court rejected the government’s “outrageous recommendation” that Hernandez serve six years in prison.
“We’re hopeful the conviction will be overturned on appeal since Deputy Hernandez did not intend to violate the illegal aliens’ civil rights when he shot at the tires of the vehicle smuggling a load of illegal aliens that tried to run into him after he stopped it for running a stop sign,” Mr. Kamenar said.