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After Hearing Concerns about ICE, Texas Sheriff Ran Apparent Traffic Sting That Led to Deportation Proceedings

A community group met with the Bastrop County sheriff in an effort to build trust between the sheriff’s office and the immigrant community. Then, the sheriff ran a sting that led to more than one dozen arrestees being handed over to ICE.

A Bastrop County Sheriff's Office unit participates in a 2011 roadblock.
Michael Rose/Flickr

After Hearing Concerns about ICE, Texas Sheriff Ran Apparent Traffic Sting That Led to Deportation Proceedings

A community group met with the Bastrop County sheriff in an effort to build trust between the sheriff’s office and the immigrant community. Then, the sheriff ran a sting that led to more than one dozen arrestees being handed over to ICE.

Just weeks after members of Texas-based community group Bastrop Interfaith met with Sheriff Maurice Cook to express concerns about their neighborhoods (illegal dumping, speeding, minor theft) and to begin a dialogue about law enforcement’s relationship with immigrants, Cook presided over an apparent “zero tolerance” traffic sting. During the operation, 63 people were pulled over for traffic offenses, of whom 24 were arrested for offenses such as driving without a license and DWI. Thirteen of those arrested were handed over to ICE for deportation proceedings.

Bastrop Interfaith, which is in Bastrop County, comprises local churches, schools, and clinics. Edie Clark, a leader with the group, told The Appeal that although some members had law enforcement-related concerns, the primary purpose of the meeting with Cook was to build trust between the sheriff’s office and the immigrant community. Clark said the group specifically sought to draw attention to a New York Times article that detailed how undocumented women are often hesitant to report domestic violence because they fear deportation.

But on June 23, three weeks after the meeting, Cook carried out the traffic enforcement operation in predominantly Latinx Bastrop neighborhood of Del Valle. Clark says that Cook even brought in additional law enforcement personnel, including state troopers, which resulted in 63 people being pulled over for traffic violations, most of which were minor.  According to Clark, all but one of the 24 arrested had Hispanic surnames.

Clark says that the operation left Bastrop’s Latinx community frightened. “People are afraid to drive or go the grocery store,” she said, “School is out and parents are scared about their children playing outside.”

Their fear is not unfounded: Operations like the one conducted by Sheriff Cook feed President Trump’s deportation machine. As journalist Jorge Rivas noted, “the vast majority of immigrants are transferred to ICE custody from other law enforcement agencies—not as a result of ICE agents knocking on someone’s door seeking to arrest the person that lives there.”

On July 3, Cook, who is a Republican and a former head of the Texas Rangers, released a statement regarding the operation, saying  “the only target of the initiative was traffic law violations and the results prove how badly it was needed. The initiative had nothing to do with immigration.” Cook further claimed that the 24 people were arrested “because of the seriousness of the offenses” and that two arrests were connected to the apprehension of a fugitive.

But at least two people were arrested for minor traffic violations. Jacqueline Benitez-Quintana was pulled over for failing to use turn signal and arrested for driving without a license. Eugenio Orozco was ticketed by the same officer for an obscured license plate and then taken into custody for failure to display a driver’s license upon the request of a peace officer. Orozco had a valid license, but presented the officer with his Mexican ID card.

Under Texas law, officers aren’t compelled to arrest individuals for driving without a license and can issue citations instead. The state does not offer licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Carlos González Gutiérrez, Mexico’s consul general in Austin, says at least one of those arrested said that he was questioned about his citizenship; others said they were asked where they were born. Gonzalez also pointed out that the arrests occurred on the day that Mexico bested South Korea in the World Cup and that several people ticketed were wearing the Mexico team’s jerseys. Cook has denied that anyone was asked about their citizenship.

On July 12, Bastrop Interfaith met with Cook to express its frustration and anxiety over the operation. “People were already afraid to report crimes,” said Clark. “And now it’s gotten worse.”

US Attorney’s Office That Prosecuted Inauguration Day Protesters Has History of Misconduct Findings

Prosecutors on the "J20" case faced grave allegations of misconduct after withholding exculpatory evidence contained in videos from defense attorneys. But this is far from the first time that this office has found itself in hot water.

Police and demonstrators clash in downtown Washington after a limo was set on fire following the inauguration of President Donald Trump on January 20, 2017
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

US Attorney’s Office That Prosecuted Inauguration Day Protesters Has History of Misconduct Findings

Prosecutors on the "J20" case faced grave allegations of misconduct after withholding exculpatory evidence contained in videos from defense attorneys. But this is far from the first time that this office has found itself in hot water.

Oliver Harris finally felt vindicated when he heard the jury announce “not guilty” last December, as the first of the J20 trials came to a close.  Relief would come later. The then 28-year-old, disturbed by what he perceived as Donald Trump’s violent and fascist language on the campaign trail, had traveled to Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day—Jan. 20, 2017—to protest the Trump administration as part of a direct action organized by the group #DisruptJ20

During the protest, which was hundreds strong, a small group destroyed property, including a police car and business windows.  The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), in turn, used pepper spray, tear gas, and Sting-Ball grenades against the protestors.  By the end of the day, Harris was arrested, along with over 230 others, charged under the D.C. rioting statute despite no credible evidence he incited or engaged in a riot or caused any property damage. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which handles both local and federal cases, later added numerous other charges against 214 defendants.   

Throughout 2017, Harris, who faced up to 60 years in prison, joined the other charged protestors and hundreds of defense attorneys to prepare for their trials.  But thanks to his acquittal in December, he could go home to his partner who was pregnant with twins, return to his teaching job at Drexel University and his Ph.D. studies in chemical engineering, and resume a normal life. Earlier this month, after another trial that ended with no convictions, prosecutors finally dropped the charges against all defendants.

One of the prosecutors in the case, Rizwan Qureshi, shook the defense attorneys’ hands.  But not Jennifer Kerkhoff, the lead prosecutor and a central figure in the J20 legal saga.  Harris told The Appeal that she refused.  “She does this thing,” Harris explained, “where she just kind of—it’s like her jaw is really clenched and she is just grinding her teeth and she just stares at the table. She seemed livid.”  

“Even in little kid soccer,” Harris continued, you still have to “shake the other team’s hands.  I think it says a lot about her as a person.”

The J20 trials captured national attention, featuring media coverage in the Washington Post, The Intercept, and on, as commentators weighed in with their disgust at the government’s decision to charge hundreds for destruction committed by a few.  And the prosecutors also made headlines after defense lawyers accused it of withholding evidence that could have damaged its case and helped hundreds of defendants prove their innocence.  The government’s malfeasance—and Kerkhoff’s in particular—caused the chief judge of the Superior Court to dismiss numerous charges against one group of defendants and preclude future prosecution on the primary charge. “I do think it’s a serious violation,” he concluded. “It was intentional in the sense that the government made intentional decisions that it made not to disclose.” These trials revealed something, as Harris put it, more “sinister” about the D.C. United States Attorney’s office: its willingness to hide evidence to win. 

An examination of Kerkhoff’s prior cases by The Appeal suggests that this misconduct did not occur in a vacuum.  It is present in other cases prosecuted by Kerkhoff, who was promoted to chief of the felony major trial division after she lost Harris’s trial, a division regularly given the office’s most important cases. And it speaks to a greater culture problem in the D.C. United States Attorney’s office.  The J20 trials placed this misconduct in the national spotlight.

The J20 trials

On Feb. 8, 2017, a grand jury in the District of Columbia handed down an indictment charging the J20 defendants with felony rioting, and two months later, they issued a superseding indictment charging 214 people with eight different felonies.  Lacking evidence that most of the more than 200 defendants caused any property damage, the government needed to show that the protesters engaged in a conspiracy to riot—in other words, that they agreed to participate in a protest that would cause destruction to persons or property. If prosecutors could prove this, each charged protester could be responsible for the damage caused by the other.  

As evidence, the government relied primarily on an undercover video filmed by Project Veritas of a Jan. 8 meeting by #DisruptJ20 as organizers planned the inauguration protests.  During the meeting, organizers discussed using blockades, and one organizer said he would make the inauguration a “giant clusterfuck.” The government’s use of the video drew extraordinary criticism on social media and in the press, in large part because of Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe’s reputation for deceptively editing videos. (In 2009, he disguised himself as a pimp and shot a video that falsely accused the voter-registration group ACORN of offering advice on using underage girls in the sex trade. In late 2017, he also tried to plant a false story with the Washington Post during the Alabama election involving the failed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.)

Kerkhoff introduced the Veritas video at the first J20 trial on November 28 to demonstrate that activists (but not Harris or his co-defendants) discussed disrupting inauguration activities. She relied on it in her opening and her closing statements as significant evidence of a conspiracy. Nothing that occurred during the protest was “a coincidence,” she argued—it was planned.  She also assured the court this was the only Project Veritas video in existence, and that it was unaltered, “in complete, unredacted form.”

This was not true. In May of this year, long after the acquittals in Harris’s December trials and during the second set of trials, defense attorneys learned that the Veritas video was edited.  Either the prosecutor or the lead detective — defense lawyers could not figure out which —  removed a section of the video where the Veritas mole stated, “I was talking to one of the organizers … and I don’t think they know anything about any of the upper echelon stuff.”  That statement could blow apart the government’s theory that the protesters engaged in a highly organized plan to commit violence.  As one defense lawyer wrote in a pleading: “What better exculpatory evidence for the defense than the words from the person sent to capture a nefarious meeting stating right after the meeting ‘I don’t think they know anything.’”  The court found a Brady violation.

Later that week, defense attorneys learned that Kerkhoff had also failed to disclose 69 additional Project Veritas videos, 35 of which captured “action camps” or planning meetings for J20 where those present discussed how to de-escalate violence—the opposite of the government’s theory that the attendees were planning violence to ruin the inauguration.  Kerkhoff did not attend the May 31, 2018, hearing on the defense’s motion for Brady sanctions, allowing Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Baset to respond to D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin’s repeated questions about why Kerkhoff misled the court.  Baset had no response.  Judge Morin dismissed the conspiracy charges against the six defendants before him and barred prosecution on that count forever, finding the government intentionally suppressed the video evidence.  “It was a glorious day for all of us,” Harris told The Appeal.  (The United States Attorney’s Office has since asked Judge Morin to reconsider his finding in a pleading that Kerkhoff did not sign, describing the court’s finding that an “Assistant United States Attorney made an intentional misrepresentation” as a “serious matter.”)

These were not the only Brady violations that defense counsel alleged in the J20 cases.  Harris says that just before the first trial, the government dropped a mountain of MPD body cameras—at least 933 video recordings—that had never been disclosed.  Harris says that many of the videos depicted officer violence — notable also given that one of the government’s key testifying witnesses, Officer William Chatman, wore a T-shirt that read, “Police brutality … or doing what their parents should have?” as he entered Superior Court to testify during the second trial.

In another pleading, defense lawyer Roy Austin accused Kerkhoff of committing a “fraud on this Court.” Kerkhoff previously believed Austin’s client had attended a planning meeting. Kerkhoff then changed her mind, but failed to correct her prior representation to the court or alert defense counsel. “AUSA Kerkhoff has ignored and continues to ignore her Brady-related discovery obligations,” Austin wrote.

Past allegations against Kerkhoff

Defense attorneys told The Appeal that this is far from the first time that Kerkhoff has exhibited questionable behavior in court, often in cases with even higher stakes involving poorer defendants.

In 2011, for example, Kerkhoff and another prosecutor tried five men for a series of 2008 shootings that rocked the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, D.C., leaving a 13-year old boy caught in the cross-fire dead and several others injured.  Defense attorneys immediately requested any Brady material, but only a few weeks before trial, two years later, did they receive medical records showing that Kerkhoff’s key eyewitness reported experiencing bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, and hallucinations, and to hearing voices, around the time of the shooting. They also learned, for the first time, that the witness had used alcohol, marijuana, and PCP since the age of 7.  Defense attorneys wrote in a pleading filed with the court, this undermined the witness’ ability to “distinguish reality from fantasy,” accurately observe, and fairly report events. It was just the kind of information that should have been disclosed to the defense two years prior.  

Kerkhoff and her team received no sanctions from the court for this late disclosure and trial proceeded.  A jury nonetheless found all but one of the five defendants not guilty, and the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned that sole conviction in 2013, finding that the trial  judge’s instructions had coerced at least one juror into voting for guilt.

Kerkhoff’s assertions in a September 2017 federal court filing also reveal either her misunderstanding of her Brady obligations or her willingness to ignore them. Responding to the defense’s request for early disclosure of Giglio material—a subset of Brady that includes any material that negatively affects a witness’s credibility (like prior inconsistent statements about the same incident or examples of previous lies), she wrote that “the government need not disclose this material until after the witness has testified on direct examination.” This interpretation, albeit one often advanced by prosecutors, ignores the Supreme Court’s clear directive that prosecutors’ Brady obligations extend to any information that casts doubt on its case, regardless of label.  They must disclose that evidence before trial, not after it has already started.

Other examples include an allegation in a 2011 child sex abuse case, for example, Kerkhoff ran into the jury foreman on another colleague’s case.  The foreperson was an MPD detective she knew, and the jury was still deliberating. That night, she wrote an email to the prosecuting attorney, in which she said that she “spent the evening drowning my sorrows with a familiar face. You will have the remainder of the verdict tomorrow. Congrats on the guilty verdicts.” It is, of course, impermissible for jurors to talk anyone about the case that has not concluded, and prosecutors should never talk to a jury member about a case active in their office, lest they risk influencing the outcome, even inadvertently. The defense attorney moved for a mistrial, but Kerkhoff claimed that she merely spoke to the foreperson about whether he would soon be able to return to work.  The trial judge accepted her explanation and found no misconduct.

A broader problem

But allegations, and often findings of misconduct, are a problem that is office-wide.  Court pleadings and decisions reflect a broader culture problem in the office.  In 2010, for example, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines stood proudly after a jury convicted Ingmar Guandique of murdering Chandra Levy—the Capitol Hill intern who had an affair with Congressman Gary Condit—as she ran through Rock Creek Park in the early morning hours of May 1, 2001. Because of Levy’s involvement with Condit, the case captivated the country for years as it went unsolved. In 2016, the government dismissed the case, (also standing before Judge Morin), as allegations mounted that prosecutors lied and allowed perjured testimony when its key witness, jailhouse informant Armando Morales, denied asking for any favors in exchange for testifying that Guandique confessed to the murders. As The Appeal recently reported, jailhouse informants “are a particularly risky and unreliable category of criminal informant” responsible for widespread wrongful convictions.  

Haines also found herself in hot water in 2005, when she tried Thomas Zanders for murdering Allen Lancaster as part of a retaliation for a robbery.  A jury convicted him, but the D.C. Court of Appeals found that while she disclosed that someone else had an argument with Lancaster at some point before the murder, she failed to mention the argument actually occurred the day before the murder in the exact same place as the subsequent shooting.  Ms. Haines went on to become a federal death penalty prosecutor for several years.

Similar allegations against the office abound in other less newsworthy but no less significant cases. In 2009, a trial judge granted Joseph Harrington a new trial in a stabbing death case after Assistant U.S. Attorney Vivien Cockburn failed to disclose to the defense that witness “L.G.” saw the government’s key eyewitness, “R.M.,” with a knife attached to her dress soon after the stabbing, looking disheveled.  She also never mentioned that R.M. stated: “Self-preservation is the first rule of law” when L.G. asked if she was involved in the stabbing. That evidence certainly implicated R.M. in the murder and provided her with a motive to falsely implicate Harrington. The trial judge called the nondisclosure “conscious and deliberate.” After an investigation, the D.C. Bar issued only an informal admonition to Cockburn. Cockburn continues to prosecute cases for the office.  

And there are other  examples. In 2011, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed Tyree Miller’s assault with attempt to commit murder conviction because the government waited until after the trial started to disclose that the eyewitness believed the shooter used his left hand—a critical fact because Miller was right-handed.  In 2014, it reversed Carl Morton’s convictions for assaulting a Delaware prison guard because the government never mentioned officials were investigating the accusing officer eyewitness for making a false allegation in another prison guard attack case. And in 2016, it found that the trial court erred when it failed to adequately consider sanctions in Terry Johnson’s second-degree murder trial, because the government waited for over a year to disclose that someone other than Johnson had a motive to kill the decedent, and that this person was rumored to have placed a $20,000 bounty on the decedent’s head.

And yet this is just the misconduct available in published pleadings or captured by reporters watching high profile cases. According to Phil Andonian, one of the attorneys on the J20 case: “Brady violations are nothing new, and are hardly ever treated this seriously.  The difference in the J20 cases, sadly, is that hundreds of lawyers from all over the city — from solo practitioners to Big Law institutions — worked together to hold the government accountable in a case that was unpopular from the beginning.  This magnitude of defense resources and public backlash are rarely features of the criminal-justice system. Which is why the government so often flies comfortably under the radar.”

(Asked about the misconduct allegations in the J20 case and whether there is a Brady violation or culture problem in the United States Attorney’s Office, a spokesman told The Appeal, “We have no comment beyond what we have submitted or stated to the Court.”)

Perhaps change will come to the D.C. United States Attorney’s office because of the high-profile failures in the J20 trials. Several of the J20 defendants recently expressed their intent to file a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.  They are well positioned to do so, with all eyes watching and little chance of future repercussions.

But prosecutors rarely receive meaningful punishment.  Often, bar counsel never learns about alleged prosecutorial misconduct.  Defense attorneys are usually in the best position to report it, but tend to worry that prosecutors will stop giving favorable plea deals to their clients or will even target their clients for enhanced or future prosecution. And even if aware that a prosecutor is violating the Constitution, bar counsel rarely acts. There is the occasional exception: In 2012, bar counsel suspended U.S. Attorney Paul Howes’s license after attorneys learned that he distributed $42,000 in illegal witness payments in various cases, failed to tell defense attorneys about those payments, and also lied about them in court. But just five years later, the D.C. Court of Appeals reinstated his law license after an initial suspension. Until trial judges, the bar, and the United States Attorney’s office, whose mantra is “the fair and impartial administration of justice for all,” punishes bad behavior, it most likely will be business as usual in D.C. Superior Court.

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Multiple Police Cars Summoned to Arrest Selma Civil Rights Activist for Allegedly Stealing a Campaign Sign

Faya Rose Touré, a 73-year-old former judge, says she’s determined to fight the charges against her.

Faya Rose Touré
Credit: Lauren Gill

Multiple Police Cars Summoned to Arrest Selma Civil Rights Activist for Allegedly Stealing a Campaign Sign

Faya Rose Touré, a 73-year-old former judge, says she’s determined to fight the charges against her.

The Selma Police Department—charged with overseeing one of Alabama’s most violence-plagued cities—sent at least seven police cars to arrest a civil rights activist and attorney for allegedly stealing an illegally placed campaign sign on July 16. It plans to recommend that the state attorney general prosecute the misdemeanor case, according to the department’s chief.

The activist, Faya Rose Touré, 73, is facing charges of fourth-degree theft and attempting to elude a police officer after she led cops on a four-block chase through the city. Touré was the first Black female judge in Alabama and founder of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma.

“I’ve been in office 35 years and I’ve been running campaigns since 1974 and now I’ve never heard of a single person being arrested for a campaign sign,” Touré’s husband and attorney, state Senator Hank Sanders, told The Appeal in an interview in the Selma law office he shares with his wife.

Meanwhile, Touré says, the police have been slow to investigate a more pressing matter: death threats she received weeks before her arrest. She suspects the threats are due to her activism.

The Selma Police Department did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Appeal.

The campaign sign incident occurred following weeks of tension leading up to a July 17 run-off election for a county probate judge between winning Black candidate Jimmy Nunn and white candidate Nicholas Switzer. Despite having an 80 percent Black population, Sanders said, the city had never, to his knowledge, had a Black probate judge.

Selma has a city ordinance that forbids signs from being placed on public rights of way, but Touré and Sanders alleged that in the weeks before the election a city worker was removing signs for Nunn from these walkways but not Switzer’s signs. The worker denied these allegations to The Appeal.

After Touré complained to City Hall in a letter and got no response, she began taking Switzer’s signs from the public rights of way, announcing over the radio that the placards could be picked up at a local radio station where she and her husband used to be part owners. According to Police Chief Spencer Collier, who spoke about Touré’s arrest at a July 19 press conference, residents had complained to the police about the removal of Switzer’s signs for weeks, but she was arrested only after a detective caught her in the act.

Credit: Lauren Gill

On July 16, the day before the election, a detective in an unmarked car observed Touré taking a sign from the right of way in front of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, which held one of the first mass meetings during the voting rights movement. As she was driving away, Touré said she heard someone in a car yell at her for taking the sign. She then started to drive to Nunn’s office with her 11-year-old granddaughter, but on the way, the plainclothes officer turned on his siren, she said, noting that she drove for four blocks before coming to a stop.

“[Collier] made it sound like on the news that what was happening was a big chase,” she told The Appeal. “How can four blocks be a chase?” She says she kept driving because she wanted witnesses to the interaction. “People advise people if you feel harassed by the cops, you make sure you got a witness.”

According to Collier, the detective called in the incident as a “vehicle pursuit,” which demands that any officer in the area respond. A video filmed by Touré and her granddaughter and shared with The Appeal shows at least seven police cars surrounding her minivan as the detective informs her that she is under arrest for eluding police.

“A young Black man was killed last night and all y’all coming after me,” she can be heard saying. “Y’all would think I have committed a murder.”

Touré was booked in the Dallas County jail on a $2,000 cash bond for two nights, refusing to post the bond out of protest. The cash bond requirement was eventually withdrawn and Touré was allowed to leave on her own signature.

Touré said police should focus on calming the city’s violent crime wave and finding the people who have threatened her life. More than a month ago, a woman phoned threats into the radio station and into her law office. In the latter, the woman told Touré’s secretary, “If y’all wanna live y’all better get out of that law office right now.” The radio station filed an incident report and provided the phone number to the police, but no arrests have been made.

Touré said she was also threatened in December 2017 in the parking lot of a town 15 miles from Selma when she said a man took a “Vote or Die” sticker from her car and said, “Somebody’s gonna die tonight.”

The Selma Police Department told reporters in a news conference that the investigation into the death threats was ongoing.

Touré is filing a motion for a speedy trial and is considering suing the city.

Selma, a historic city at the heart of the civil rights movement, is home to the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the site of Bloody Sunday—over which Martin Luther King Jr. led a march to Montgomery that helped result in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A half-century later, the city’s police station still displays a cattle prod and batons in a glass case near the entrance. The Old Live Oak Cemetery has a monument to Confederate soldiers with cannons pointing north, said to be protecting dead soldiers. It also contains a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave owner, Confederate Army general, and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The memorial is inscribed, “One of the South’s finest heroes.”

Some Selma residents told The Appeal that tensions with the police seem to have worsened since Collier took over as chief last year. Collier did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for an interview.

In May, police arrested Council Member Sam Randolph for public lewdness, a month after he was observed publicly urinating. His attorney said the arrest was an act of retaliation after a heated exchange with between Randolph and the mayor during a City Council meeting days earlier, the Selma-Times Journal reported.

Bishop Anthony Austin, who was born in Selma in 1973, told The Appeal that people are frequently pulled over by the police for little cause. “You can’t never ever talk to them,” he said. “It’s never been this bad.”

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