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INS agents detain San Juan DUI suspect before trial

Faces deportation in departure from usual procedures

An apparent miscommunication between San Juan County Sheriff’s Department and federal immigration officials resulted in the apprehension and probable deportation of a DUI suspect before his trial.

That Customs and Border Patrol agents took custody of Francisco Arias Rodriguez, 18, of Friday Harbor isn’t surprising. He had no documents showing his citizenship status at the time of his arrest for a DUI last week.

What is a surprise is he was taken into custody in the county courthouse by a plainclothes Customs and Border Protection officer before he could appear at his arraignment and enter a plea, a marked departure from established procedural norms.

“It really took us by surprise that they came to pick him up,” Sheriff Bill Cumming said. “We usually tell INS that ‘he’s yours when we get done with him’ — and we weren’t done with him.”

In accordance with sheriff’s policy, federal immigration authorities were notified of Rodriguez’s arrest when it became reasonable for the sheriff’s office to question Rodriguez’s immigration status.

According to Cumming, the Sheriff’s Office informs immigration officials when there is a reasonable suspicion to question the immigration status of the person held in custody. When someone is suspected of committing one of a class of crimes that pose a continuing threat to the community, immigration officials are and have been routinely notified, Cumming said.

That class of crimes includes all violent crimes, theft, driving under the influence, domestic violence and more. “If we have reasonable suspicion that a person does not have legal status here, INS is to be contacted,” Cumming said. “Our plan is that the person is to be held accountable for the crime. INS will take whatever action they’re going to take.”

“We’ll use any tool we have to keep our community safe,” Cumming said.

The office of Immigration and Naturalization Service no longer exists, but has been folded into the office of Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security.

What took local officials by surprise was the speed with which federal agents acted in Rodriguez’s case, far sooner than anyone expected.

“It sounds like it was a blip in the policy,” Sheriff Cumming said last week. “In this case, it was earlier than we anticipated and wanted.”

The transfer of Rodriguez apparently caught the prosecutor’s office by surprise as well. “I wasn’t unaware that they were going to do it,” Deputy Prosecutor Stephen Brandley said. “He had been arrested the day before. It happened very quickly.”

Rodriguez’s whereabouts are unknown, although Border Patrol agent Mike Bermudez of the Customs and Border Patrol as well as Lorie Dankers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement suspect that he’s been either deported to his country of origin or is being held at the Tacoma Detention Facility awaiting further processing.

Currently, there are no plans to regain custody of Rodriguez and finish what District Court started. “I don’t think we’ve got that power,” Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said Monday. “I’m not sure I have the power to un-ring the bell, so to speak.”

Agent Burmudez acknowledged that Rodriguez’s removal so early in the process deviated from what he knows to be standard procedure.

“Normally, what we do — what we’ve done — is that when someone is arrested, let’s say by Bellingham Police Department, they’ll serve their time with them, and we’ll place a detainer on them so they will then serve their time with us,” he said.

Gaylord also said he had held a meeting with Sheriff Cumming so as to clarify notification procedures in the future. “What happened reflected a change in the policy. We met with the sheriff to clarify that the local court processes be completed before notifying immigration officials.”

Gaylord conceded that once federal officers were notified of Rodriguez’s status and whereabouts, it was entirely in their power to pick him up. “You bet,” he said. “It’s a matter of jurisdiction and cooperation. He’s in their hands.”

Bermudez, working out of the Blaine Sector was initially as a loss as to who actually picked up Rodriguez, but that Monday, he’d spoken with the agent in question. Bermudez was unclear as to whether notification of Rodriguez’s infraction constituted a request for his removal.

He also said that federal powers often exceed what local officials have become accustomed to and that the public can expect to see a more pronounced enforcement presence as law enforcement resources become available.

“You’re going to see more and more changes as we get more funding and more personnel,” he said. “We’re expanding and implementing more enforcement procedures, and you will see changes,” he said.

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