- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

Someone ought to tell the Bush administration that prisons are for criminals, not law-enforcement personnel trying to do their jobs. On Thursday, a federal judge in Texas sentenced two former Border Patrol agents to 11 and 12 years in prison because they shot at a drug smuggler who was evading arrest.

In February 2005, Border Patrol agent Jose Alonso Compean got in a scuffle with smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who was driving a van that carried 743 pounds of marijuana. Agent Compean and fellow Agent Ignacio Ramos shot at Mr. Aldrete-Davila — they say they thought he had a gun, which Mr. Aldrete-Davila denies. Agent Ramos shot the smuggler in the butt, but because Mr. Aldrete-Davila kept running — across the border — they said they thought they did not hit him. The agents picked up their shells and failed to report the shooting. For that violation of agency policy, Agents Ramos and Compean deserved an administrative review and some sort of job-related punishment.

Instead, due to a case of blind and bloodthirsty federal prosecutorial overkill, Agents Ramos and Compean were sentenced to 11 years and 12 years, respectively. Oh, and the smuggler was granted immunity for the 743 pounds of pot and is suing the federal government for $5 million. Crime pays, while going after criminals can land you hard time in prison.

On the government’s side, I should mention: A jury found the two agents guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon, discharge of a firearm during a violent crime, obstructing justice, lying about the incident and willfully violating the Fourth Amendment right of Mr. Aldrete-Davila — who was in the United States illegally, not to be mention smuggling drugs — to be free from illegal seizure. Now three jurors have signed statements saying they were pressured into a guilty verdict, for whatever — read, not much at this late date — that is worth.

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton released a statement last month that explained he prosecuted the two agents because, before the scuffle: “In fear of what the agents would do to him next, [the smuggler] ran away from the agents, who then fired at least 15 rounds at him, although they had seen his open hands and knew that he was not holding a weapon and had no reason to think he had a weapon, hitting him once and causing serious bodily injury.”

As everyone knows, drug smugglers would never carry a concealed weapon and prosecutors should take a drug-ring lieutenant’s word over that of Border Patrol agents with clean records — because the smuggler would tell the truth even if he had a $5 million incentive to lie. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

I should note the feds had offered the agents one year in a plea bargain, the El Paso Times reported, but the agents preferred to go to trial. “They were innocent, why should they take it?” noted T.J. Bonner, president of the agents’ union, the National Border Patrol Council. “They trust in the system of justice, and it let them down.”

If these agents were gun-happy rogue enforcers, or if they were running a criminal operation, Mr. Sutton would be right to want to put them behind bars. But these are good guys with no other marks against them. Agent Ramos was nominated for Border Patrol Agent of the year in 2005 — before the drug smuggler got his deal.

Crooked Border Patrol agents face less time than Agents Ramos and Compean for running criminal operations. In July, Agent Oscar Antonio Ortiz received a five-year sentence in San Diego for smuggling 100 illegal immigrants into America — sometimes in a Border Patrol truck. In that case, the judge increased his sentence beyond the three years recommended by the feds. Last week, the Texas federal judge issued a lighter sentence than the 20 years recommended by the U.S. Probation Office, although federal mandatory minimums forced her to sentence Ramos and Compean to more than 10 years.

The House Judiciary Committee has promised to hold hearings on this case after the November elections. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, has asked for the Senate to hold hearings, as well.

Note to the Bush Justice Department: Prison is for criminals. Plus: If you want to save the taxpayers’ money, just issue a memo that tells Border Patrol agents not to arrest smugglers. That would be cheaper than putting away Agents Ramos and Compean for years in prisons filled with the type of guys they used to put away.

President Bush does not have to wait for congressional hearings. In order to spare the agents and their families from further anguish and legal bills, Mr. Bush should commute the agents’ sentences now. If ever an act of compassionate conservatism was needed, this is it.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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