As their son and immigration attorney tell the story, Carlos Nieblas-Ortiz and his wife Martha Valenzuela-Luna were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The couple had headed down to Mission Bay the evening of June 25 to check on the boat Ortiz owns and keeps near Dana Landing, said their 20-year-old son, also named Carlos. Their 14-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, rode with them. Ortiz and Luna never made it home.

Along the way, they crossed paths with two deputies from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department who were on patrol looking for smugglers leaving the area carrying drugs.

Deputies stopped the vehicle for what they said was a cracked windshield. They searched the car for drugs, but found none. They issued no citations, and made no arrests. But neither Ortiz nor Luna was allowed to leave.

Despite a Sheriff’s Department policy that prohibits deputies from stopping, detaining or questioning people for reasons related to immigration, the deputies contacted U.S. Border Patrol during the traffic stop and held the couple until the agents arrived on scene to detain them. The teenager was released after the stop.

U.S. Border Patrol confirmed they detained Ortiz and Luna after they were contacted by Sheriff’s deputies that day. Both are Mexican nationals who are in the country illegally, said Border Patrol spokesperson Mark Endicott. The couple was detained and sent to separate facilities – Ortiz to Adelanto, three hours north of San Diego, and Luna to Bakersfield.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

On Wednesday, Ortiz sat across from a judge wearing a blue detainee jumpsuit and headphones to hear a Spanish-speaking interpreter. After a brief hearing, the judge agreed to release Ortiz on a $5,000 cash bond. At no point did the judge mention a criminal investigation or narcotics transportation – two factors, according to the Sheriff’s Department, that led to his and his wife’s detention. Ortiz was released late the following Tuesday after his son paid his bond.

Attorney Daniel Castañeda, who represents the couple, said that because Luna is now seeking asylum, her case will likely take longer to resolve. She’ll be detained at least until mid-August, when she goes before a judge for a bond hearing.

Both the Sheriff’s Department and Border Patrol have confirmed that the latter became involved in the stop because of a call from Sheriff’s deputies. In dispute, however, is whether Sheriff’s deputies violated department policy by bringing in federal immigration agents. Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Ryan Keim said the traffic stop had nothing to do with immigration and that deputies never questioned Ortiz and Luna about their citizenship.

“Sheriff’s deputies contacted the Border Patrol and were informed one of the individuals was wanted in connection with an ongoing felony criminal investigation which is not a violation of policy,” Keim wrote in a statement.

But David Myers, a commander in the Sheriff’s Department, said the outcome of the stop shows there was a clear violation of department policy, which was adopted to maintain trust between immigration communities and local law enforcement officers. Myers is running for sheriff against incumbent Bill Gore.

Sherriff_dept_policy_immigration

“In this case, Sheriff’s deputies made a stop. There were no arrests made and no citations issued. These people should have been on their way. There was no reason to contact Border Patrol,” said Myers.

If undocumented individuals fear they’ll be taken into custody by local law enforcement based on their immigration status, they’ll be less likely to approach them to report crimes, Myers said.

“Sheriff’s deputies should not be asking immigration status questions, at any time, period.” he said. “We are here to investigate local and state crimes. We’re not here to alienate, marginalize or demoralize any segment of our population because we have a duty to our local citizens to enforce local and state laws.”

Keim confirmed that at the time deputies made the stop, they were on patrol as part of Operation Stonegarden, a federally funded collaboration between federal and local law enforcement agencies to combat drug trafficking and border crimes in the region.

The department stated on the grant application that it won’t use the money to enforce immigration law. Myers, who wrote the original grant application in 2008, said the stop could have therefore been a violation of the terms of the grant.

agreement_stonegarden

Keim provided the following statement about the incident:

“Sheriff’s Deputies conducted a traffic stop while engaged in a directed patrol detail targeting narcotic traffickers in the San Diego region. Based on other facts at the time of the vehicle stop, they believed the occupants may have also been involved in illegal activity, namely the transportation of narcotics. As part of the narcotics investigation, deputies contacted the Border Patrol to inquire into the frequency of border crossings made by the subjects detained. Frequent border crossings are one of the common indicators of possible drug trafficking.

The inquiry was not related to the immigration status of the individuals detained. Sheriff’s Deputies learned one of the occupants of the vehicle was wanted by the United States Border Patrol in connection with an ongoing, felony criminal investigation. The Border Patrol arrived on scene pursuant to the felony criminal investigation. Border Patrol was not contacted for the purposes of immigration enforcement and at no point during the contact did Sheriff’s Deputies inquire or investigate immigration status. To report otherwise would be inaccurate and irresponsible.”

Keim did not say which factors led deputies to believe the family was carrying drugs. He acknowledged that deputies contacted Border Patrol to ask about Ortiz and Luna’s history of crossing the border, but said that is different from asking about immigration status.

“Since we do not enforce immigration law, the immigration status of somebody involved in an investigation is irrelevant to deputies. United States citizens and Mexican citizens can both traffic illegal drugs and the frequency and/or number of crossings can be relevant in the narcotics investigation regardless of the immigration status of the suspect.”

Castañeda said the department’s story sounds suspicious.

If Ortiz would have been wanted for questioning in a criminal investigation, he said, the judge would have raised the issue during Ortiz’s bond hearing, and likely wouldn’t have agreed to release him on bond.

“Law enforcement basically says whatever they want,” Castañeda said. “I think the family was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Neither Superior Court nor federal court records reveal a criminal history for Ortiz or Luna.

The couple’s son Carlos said he said he first heard about the incident when his mom called him from the car after deputies stopped them.

“She told me they were stopped for a cracked windshield but that they should be let go soon,” Carlos said.

He said his dad works in construction and was carrying tools in the back, which weighted the car down. He thinks that could have led deputies to believe they were carrying narcotics.

“They even searched the trunk and they didn’t find anything,” said Carlos. “Then one of them went to his car and when he came back he said, ‘I called Border Patrol and they’re coming to see you.’”

Carlos said he was nearby when he got the call from his mom, and drove to the scene to pick up his sister. There, he saw patrol cars from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, San Diego Police Department and Border Patrol. He filmed the officers talking outside their vehicles with his cell phone.

♦♦♦

The case highlights how even in San Diego, which has sometimes been called a sanctuary city for its perceived separation between local police and federal agencies, local law enforcement does cooperate with agencies that enforce immigration law. In this case, that cooperation landed two people in detention.

Scott Wahl, a San Diego Police Department spokesman, confirmed that SDPD officers were present at Ortiz and Luna’s stop, but said they were only called in to back up the Sheriff’s Department, because the stop happened outside their jurisdiction.

Voice of San Diego requested footage from the body-worn cameras SDPD officers wore on the scene. Wahl said that even though SDPD did not initiate the stop and was not investigating the incident, SDPD treats all body-worn camera footage as evidence and does not release it to the media.

SDPD, too, has faced questions recently about whether officers cross the line into immigration enforcement.

The department has declined to provide body-worn camera footage from a separate incident that took place earlier this month in City Heights, when an SDPD officer was filmed asking a man about his immigration status.

In that case, Wahl said an SDPD officer had witnessed a man jaywalking and tried to speak with him. Wahl said the officer only asked about immigration status in an effort to verify his identity.

“This situation was not about immigration,” Wahl said. “The officer was only trying to identify the man in the video who he believed was lying about his name.”

The officer didn’t detain the man in that incident, though Wahl said the officer could have brought him down to the station to fingerprint him, in accordance with department policy.

Councilwoman Georgette Gómez, whose district includes City Heights, urged SDPD to release body camera footage in that incident as well, but the footage has not been released.

Like the Sheriff’s Department, SDPD has a policy that prohibits officers from looking specifically for immigration violations. SDPD policy states: “Although state and local peace officers have the authority to assist in enforcing immigration laws, it is the policy of the San Diego Police Department that officers shall not make an effort to look for violations of immigration laws.”

♦♦♦

For the past nine years, federal agencies and local law enforcement have worked together to combat drug smuggling and border crimes through Operation Stonegarden, which began in 2008 with a $5.5 million federal grant. The grant has been renewed annually, and in 2016 the Department of Homeland Security awarded $6.7 million to the San Diego region for Operation Stonegarden.

The money flows through the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which administers the grant and disperses funds to 27 agencies, including all local police departments in the county. The grant pays officers’ overtime to participate in special details, including those in which they work alongside federal agents.

But the money was never intended to help local agencies enforce immigration law. In 2008, the Sheriff’s Department put out a press release that explicitly said so.

“It is important to note, the Stonegarden Grant does not change the duties and responsibilities of local law enforcement. Local law enforcement is not empowered to enforce federal laws. It simply put, provides additional resources to local law enforcement so we can more effectively prevent and suppress border related crimes,” the press release stated.

Hiram Soto, communications director for Alliance San Diego, which advocates for immigrant rights and greater transparency for Border Patrol, said the story underscores the uncertainty immigrant communities feel about which law enforcement agencies work with federal agencies and which don’t.

“Nobody knows who works with who. We are next to the border so we already have a high number of federal agents and a layer of militarization. San Diego County already has more federal agents than peace officers. They’re outnumbered by thousands. If police officers are working with border patrol, that essentially adds another layer of federal agents,” Soto said.

The Sheriff’s Department has an ambiguous relationship with federal agencies when it comes to immigration enforcement.

The department typically doesn’t honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain non-citizens within their jails for 48 hours after they’d normally be released, so ICE can take the individuals into custody. But for years the sheriff has provided office space to ICE within San Diego County jails and given federal agents access to inmates’ booking information. Agents can interview individuals they suspect are in the country illegally and ask to be notified when the inmate is up for release.

Whether Sheriff’s deputies in Ortiz and Luna’s case intentionally tried to enforce immigration law, they did initiate a traffic stop and contact Border Patrol about the individuals, which led to their detention. And that’s a problem, Myers said.

“It really undermines our credibility as a law enforcement agency if we say one thing on a federal grant application do something different on the street,” said Myers. “We have a policy, and the policy is there for a reason – especially in today’s environment in which community and law enforcement trust is growing wider and wider.”

    This article relates to: Immigration, Public Safety

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    14 comments
    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    Mario, not one of your best efforts. Had to read like 10 paragraphs to find out their windshield was indeed cracked (pretty sure) , then the was the thing about a felony never explained huh??  Good work by the officers , not sure why they weren't immediately deported. 

    Jay Byrd
    Jay Byrd

    Kudos to the officers who called in ICE.  Someone needs to live up to the oath they take to uphold the law.  Everyone else should be fired.

    merlot4251
    merlot4251 subscriber

    Lots of people have cracked windshields including me.  I haven't spent the money to replace it because i replaced it once already three years ago and then three months later it got cracked again by another flying piece of debris on our lovely freeways.  But i am white, so I don't think the police will ever stop me for that reason. 


    Also, If the couple were here illegally, then there won't be a history of frequent border crossings for them.  Duh.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Since when did a cracked windshield, or a tail light or headlight out, constitute probable cause for a search of the vehicle?
     (Rhetorical question)

    Al Allen
    Al Allen

    Curious how the sheriff's deputies were legally able to go from a cracked windshield to a search of the vehicle for drugs. Is the new standard for vehicle drug searches mean anyone going to Dana Point is subject to search? Really?


    With all the stories in the news of LEO's caught willfully violating the law by planting evidence one would hope these officers had their body cameras on at all times, the family members were allowed to closely observe the search, ensuring nothing was planted.


    Sad to say it is the 1% of substandard LEO's are ruining it for the 99% of professional LEOs.

    Citizen Zero
    Citizen Zero

    @Al Allen  @Judith Swink , simple - the officer pulls them over, asks to search the vehicle, they say yes, and there you go.  Perfectly legal.  If they don't give permission, the officer would have had to gotten a warrant to search.  I'm assuming, of course, that this is the scenario that played out, but it's not unreasonable.

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    The old saying "The fish stinks from the head" likely applies here. Sheriff Gore is an unabashed Trump and Issa supporter. Odds are that his subordinates know that they can ignore the department's immigration policy. 

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The core tenet of our system of justice is the philosophy of the presumption of innocence. That part of who we are in the U.S. is failing. So, the instance of the teacher who got stopped in New Mexico on the I-10, at a "checkpoint charley", like the one we have on the I-5 in Camp Pendleton. There was no reason to ask anything of her nor inspect her vehicle. Why? Where was the checkpoint? The check place was in the middle of nowhere. How could anyone "sneek" up to avoid inspection. And, at the I-5, can you think of zone more militarized than that? There is no reason to check anyone on those roadways unless, and this is the issue, unless the authorities have solid information on the likelihood of criminality. 

      In our country we have been "blessed" by a solid sector of citizens who often see monsters under their beds. That how we got our CIA, FBI, NSA, DEA, ATF, TSA, and a plethora of law enforcement agencies. That said, we are still in the U.S.A. And, what about Border Field State Park. How is that park like a park? It's not. It is, in fact, another outpost for ICE and you will most likely be asked to demonstrate your citizenship. 

        The boogie man people in our country are paranoid. They have nearly all of us in constant fear of something. Sure, there is all the news about Europe, the Middle East, and recent horrific events in our country. But, in all reality, we have a far greater chance of losing our lives on the freeway than being a victim of another outrageous act.

          Somewhere along the way, our law enforcement people have lost their ability to distance themselves from stepping on to our inalienable rights. And, their oft quoted dictum that they often have to make split second decisions is wearing very thin these days. They have a tough job, but I wonder whether all have been, at least, adequately trained to handle difficult situations. Yes, we all need them around. But, the vast majority of people do fairly abide by the basics of citizenry. 

          They stopped this family for a cracked windshield. Ok. They could have been given a citation or a warning. This family is now in horrible crisis, a crisis totally unnecessary. 

           There is a reason for a Border Patrol. Yeah, FOR THE BORDER. There is a reason for the hated TSA; planes are totally vulnerable. 

            There are now only two vestiges of the America I knew where there is freedom of movement without pain: Greyhound and AmTrak. That's it. And, that's just plain wrong. People we do not live in a war zone!  And, as bad as some people claim, the inner cities are not war zones either. 

              It is about the presumption of innocence. And, that is not just a procedural issue in a court trial. It is the basis of our system of jurisprudence in our country. And, our law enforcement people need to start applying that philosophy in EVERYTHING they do.

    Jeff Sanders
    Jeff Sanders subscriber

    “After a brief hearing, the judge agreed to release Ortiz on a $5,000 cash bond.”

    What kind of court was this in and what were the charges for which he was released on bond? Is there some reason that information isn't provided?

    Jeff Sanders
    Jeff Sanders subscriber

    @Mario Koran @Jeff Sanders Thanks, that wasn't clear. There are immigration offenses that can be felonies.If immigration felonies are off limits, then perhaps sheriffs will have to ask what type of felony is at issue in their communications with federal enforcement officials.

    lorisaldana
    lorisaldana subscriber

    Many thanks to Dave Myers and for his comments in this article, and for Mark Lane and others for alerting Dave about this situation.


    I first heard about this arrest at the Impeachment March on July 2, while waiting to speak in front of the County Administration Building. That same day, Deputy Sheriffs stood idly by and ignored the actions of white supremacist "Proud Boys" who pushed their way into the crowd and disrupted the speakers at the start of the event. They ignored repeated requests from organizers and volunteers who asked them to intervene and set up a barrier to keep the groups separated. (for details see: https://sandiegofreepress.org/2017/07/sd-sheriffs-stand-by-as-alt-reich-proud-boys-disrupt-impeachment-rally/


    March organizer Mohamed M Elnakib and others are now working on a potential complaint to the County Law Enforcement Review Board.


    These two events show the very different approaches the Sheriff's department has taken in one month alone, when it comes to protecting citizens: they will detain a couple without cause and turn them over to Border Patrol, but fail to act when a potentially dangerous situation develops before their eyes, threatening the safety of families in attendance.


    Time for a change.

    mike murphy
    mike murphy

    being in the US illegally could be  called being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    Wahl is the SDPD's version of Huckabee-Sanders. How information on this alleged jaywalker's citizenship would have contributed to establishing his identity is beyond me. I do concede that she, Huckabee-Sanders, is slightly less believable.