Border Patrol Agents Sentenced to Two Years in Prison for Civil Rights Violations

A federal judge in Arizona sentenced two U.S. Border Patrol agents to two years in prison each after a jury convicted them on multiple counts of civil rights violations. The federal government had accused the agents of abusing four individuals that they took into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal civil rights laws allow private citizens to bring civil claims against government agents for actions that infringe on their civil rights, as well as criminal prosecution for certain actions. Prosecutors indicted both agents for deprivation of civil rights under color of law and conspiracy to commit deprivation of civil rights, and additionally indicted one of them for witness tampering. U.S. v. Castillo, et al, No. 4:11-cr-02727, indictment (D. Ariz., Aug. 3, 2011). In April 2013, a jury convicted both men on all four counts of deprivation of civil rights, and acquitted on the conspiracy and witness tampering charges.

The defendants, Dario Castillo and Ramon Zuniga, were Border Patrol agents assigned to the area near Pisinimo, Arizona. On the night of November 12, 2008, according to the indictment, they apprehended four men they believed were attempting to cross the border from Mexico illegally, and found marijuana in the individuals’ possession. The temperature that night was reportedly around forty degrees Fahrenheit, but the two agents made the four men remove their shoes, socks, and jackets. They reportedly put marijuana in the men’s mouths and forced them to eat it, and ordered the men to run off into the desert, where they left them. Castillo was additionally accused of setting fire to the men’s belongings. Tribal police picked the men up in the desert the next morning and transferred them back to Border Patrol.

Prosecutors charged both agents with one count of conspiracy and four counts of deprivation of civil rights under color of law, one count for each of the men. 18 U.S.C. ยง 242. This statute makes it an offense for anyone acting “under color of law,” which generally means in a capacity as a government official, to deprive a person of civil rights under law or the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a vagueness challenge to the constitutionality of this statute in Screws v. U.S., 325 U.S. 91 (1945), and concluded that it is a valid sanction “to the great rights which the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to secure.” Id. at 100. The Supreme Court further affirmed the statute in U.S. v. Price, 383 U.S. 787 (1966), the case dealing with the infamous 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi.

The civil rights charges against Zuniga were misdemeanor offenses, with a maximum prison sentence of one year per charge. Castillo’s use of fire to burn the men’s clothes elevated the charges against him to the felony level, meaning he could have faced up to ten years in prison for each charge. The judge sentenced them to two years’ imprisonment on November 12, 2013.

For over twenty years, board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of defendants in west Texas. He draws on his experience as an FBI agent and a prosecutor to assist clients charged with alleged offenses at both the state and federal level, including drug-related cases and white collar crime. Please contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

Web Resources:

U.S. v. Castillo, et al (PACER registration required), No. 4:11-cr-02727, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona
More Blog Posts:

State and Federal Governments Use Civil Forfeiture to Seize Assets Outside of the Criminal Court System, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 26, 2013

Lawsuit Against Border Patrol Tests Applicability of Fourth Amendment Protections Across a National Border, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 27, 2012

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