Shared from the 2018-01-05 San Antonio Express eEdition

Chief cites a lack of jurisdiction

SAPD’s McManus defends the release of 12 migrants

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Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News

Police Chief William McManus says his officers lack jurisdiction to enforce immigration laws.

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Herbert Alan Nichols, 58, of Houston was arrested in connection with the incident.

Police Chief William McManus on Thursday defended his decision to release 12 people suspected of being in the country illegally after arresting the driver of a tractor-trailer in December, saying his officers don’t have jurisdiction to enforce immigration laws.

But the head of the union representing police officers said the chief “burned the general manual” when he decided to charge the truck driver under a state law and release the immigrants found inside the trailer.

In a news conference, McManus said he made the call to bring state charges against Herbert Alan Nichols, 58, of Houston, who was arrested Dec. 23 on the East Side.

A passing motorist had flagged down police after seeing people being unloaded from the truck and put into waiting vehicles, McManus said. By the time an officer arrived, 12 people were left, a police report states. About 15 officers were on the scene by the time he got there, McManus said.

“It could have gone federal, it could have gone state,” McManus said. “So because we had 12 people sitting on the corner, we had all of our officers queued up waiting to see how we were going to handle this, I made the call to handle it at the state level.”

It was an unusual decision. McManus said he didn’t know if San Antonio police ever had used the state transporting of people charge before, and District Attorney Nico LaHood said he hasn’t prosecuted a case under the statute since he came into office in 2015.

If convicted, Nichols could face up to 20 years in prison because one of the immigrants in the trailer was younger than

18.

The 12 immigrants, who were suspected of being in the country illegally, were taken to police headquarters and interviewed, then released to Catholic Charities, McManus said.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Antonio said Catholic Charities “assisted seven individuals with food, clothing and providing hotel rooms.” All seven left the city by Dec. 25.

McManus was careful to say the decision to charge Nichols with a state crime and release the witnesses wasn’t pursuant to a particular policy, which could have put the department in violation of the new Texas ban on so-called sanctuary cities.

Passed last year, Senate Bill 4 creates penalties for local officials who interfere with immigration enforcement. Portions of the law have been struck down by the courts, but a segment that punishes local officials who have policies preventing police from asking about immigration status still is in place.

“This call was situational, based on a fairly fluid situation on the scene,” McManus said. “So this is not necessarily the way every case is going to be handled going forward.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg left the news conference without taking questions about the smuggling incident.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, one of SB 4’s biggest supporters, didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office will enforce the provisions of the law that have been left in place.

Mike Helle, the president of the union representing San Antonio police officers, said an agent with Homeland Security Investigations, the branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that handles criminal matters, works out of police headquarters and was on his way to the scene when McManus decided to refer the case to the district attorney.

Smuggling cases have been referred to ICE as a matter of course in the past, including July’s smuggling incident that left 10 people dead who were being smuggled from Laredo to San Antonio in a tractor trailer. In that case, police found dozens of people in a truck parked near a South Side Walmart, and the driver was charged with federal crimes.

“This case should have been handled by homeland. They’re the ones that should be handling human smuggling cases,” Helle said. “Somehow McManus gets ahold of this, interjects himself into the situation, and basically starts calling Catholic Charities and all the people he can get ahold of to basically get rid of all these illegals before the feds get there.”

At police headquarters, Helle said, detectives were told not to check the witness’ names against federal and state criminal databases, which he said is a violation of standard procedure. As a result, he said, police didn’t know if any had past criminal histories.

“The guys that were not in the room could not believe it. If any one of our guys did this, any one of them, they’d probably be put on administrative duty and terminated from the Police Department,” Helle said. “They’re actually in (police headquarters) and the people from the Catholic churches, God bless them, they’re already making arrangements for people to escape.”

Helle made his comments after McManus’s news conference, and a spokeswoman for the Police Department did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, McManus said local police had to release the 12 people because they don’t have authority to investigate federal immigration violations.

“Once the folks got here to police headquarters, we had no jurisdiction to hold them, to detain them,” he said.

McManus is correct that local police do not have jurisdiction to investigate most immigration violations, said César García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver.

“I think what matters ultimately is if these are individuals themselves are suspected of engaging in criminal activity,” García said. “The presumption is that we’re all entitled of our liberty, and if any government official wants to deprive us of our liberty, then it’s up to the government to show there’s some suspicion of wrongdoing. Being in the United States without the federal government’s permission is violation of civil immigration law, not criminal immigration law.”

After last summer’s deadly smuggling incident, the city reached an agreement with Catholic Charities and Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services to work with the survivors of smuggling incidents, McManus said.

Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES, said his organization is working on getting the 12 immigrants visas available to witnesses of crimes who work with law enforcement.

“To say that this is the first time an immigrant or undocumented person has been the victim of a crime, has been encountered by San Antonio police and provided a witness statement and been released is absurd,” Ryan said. “I’ve been director of RAICES for 10 years, and we’ve received referrals from SAPD since the first days I was here. The difference is we now live under the lid of such a toxic anti-immigrant climate and an anti-immigrant administration that respecting the basic human rights of people and treating victims with dignity and respect is apparently and all of a sudden a revolutionary concept.” jbuch@express-news.net

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