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A federal judge has awarded $551,000 to a Mexican printer who spent a year in prison after soldiers near Ensenada found 37 pounds of marijuana in a sport utility vehicle he bought from the U.S. government.
Francisco Rivera Agredano's case against the government took six years to go to trial but never resolved the central question: How did this happen?
“The court does not know how Customs missed the contraband in the (Nissan) Pathfinder,” U.S. District Judge Emily Hewitt wrote in her opinion, which she reached in June but didn't release until late last month.
Nonetheless, Hewitt rejected the theory by Rivera's lawyers that U.S. Customs Service officials do not thoroughly search vehicles seized at the border because doing so could cause damage and decrease their resale value.
The federal government routinely seizes vehicles used by smugglers and sells them at auction or destroys them. Proceeds from the sales are supposed to be used for more crime-fighting efforts.
Alfonso Calderón León, Rivera's brother-in-law, also was jailed for a year but will get nothing because of the way the law works, Hewitt said.
In a recent interview in Tijuana, Rivera, 46, said he was gratified that the judge found in his favor – and that she apologized on behalf of the U.S. government, but he is not satisfied.
“We owe so much money that this isn't going to solve everything,” he said. “I don't feel like this has solved my life.”
The payment won't make up for the emotional toll of having spent a year in a Mexican prison, the damage to his business or the way it affected his wife and children, Rivera said.
How the money is to be spent is laid out by Hewitt, who sits on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, based in Washington, D.C.
Most of the money, $350,000, will pay the legal expenses incurred by lawyer Carlos Mejía López, Rivera's brother-in-law, who was able to convince a Mexican appeals court that the marijuana in the SUV was too old to be of value.
The rest is for Rivera's lost income, medical bills, psychiatric bills and to reimburse him for the $2,600 he spent on the 1987 Nissan Pathfinder.
The judge hasn't ruled on a request by Teresa Trucchi, Rivera's San Diego-based lawyer, for legal fees totaling $172,000 to $285,000.
It's unclear if the federal government will appeal. Devin Wolak, the Department of Justice lawyer who argued against the judgment, referred calls to a spokesman who declined to comment.
Vince Bond, a spokesman in San Diego for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that succeeded the Customs Service, wouldn't say what steps officials are now taking to ensure that they don't sell vehicles with hidden drugs.
Bond provided statistics that indicate seizures by the agency in the San Diego area have dropped dramatically in recent years, though sales have gone up. Of the 14,071 vehicles seized in fiscal 2004, 9,844 were destroyed and 943 were sold, with the rest held as evidence, turned over to state or local authorities, or returned to owners.
In 2007, 5,034 vehicles were seized, 167 were destroyed and 2,819 were sold.
Both Trucchi and Mejía said they are confident the U.S. government has improved its inspections of seized vehicles.
Much of the case is shrouded in mystery because government lawyers persuaded judges to keep secret exactly what happened after the Pathfinder was seized but before it was sold to Rivera.
They said they don't want smugglers to learn how they search vehicles for drugs.
Hewitt kept 11 pages of the 66-page decision secret.
The judge had earlier ruled that a Supreme Court precedent preventing lawsuits against the federal government for incidents arising outside the United States meant Calderón couldn't sue.
But because Rivera had bought the truck personally at a government auction in San Ysidro, he could go forward with his lawsuit accusing the government of breach of contract.
Rivera was right to assume that the SUV had no marijuana in it, Hewitt said.
Rivera recently said he gave it no thought, and went back and forth across the border five times without a problem.
About four months after buying the SUV in September 2001, Rivera and Calderón, who both work at the family printing business in Tijuana, went to Ensenada to pick up 5,000 freshly printed posters.
Their SUV smelled like ink when they pulled over at a military checkpoint five minutes north of town, where a soldier used a broken car antenna to poke into what was supposed to be an empty space in the upholstery.
The antenna hit something, and soldiers swarmed the car, discovering marijuana in the upholstery, doors and sides of the car.
The printers were taken to a military post south of Ensenada.
“We thought this would be cleared up,” Rivera said. “We thought this would be easy.”
It wasn't. Under Mexican law, defendants are presumed guilty, and Mejía couldn't convince judges there that the drugs were in the car when the government sold it.
Rivera and Calderón were held in deplorable conditions while Mejía fought for their freedom. They said they saw two killings in an Ensenada prison and had to share a 36-foot-by-20-foot cell with 45 to 50 other men.
“Like a sardine can,” Rivera said.
It was nearly a year before an appeals court in Mexicali finally ruled they weren't drug smugglers.
Calderón, who still works with his brother-in-law, said he is just about done with the ordeal.
“What you want is to forget about that already,” Calderón said.
another innocent casualty of the drug war. at least they were able to cause a serious dent in the drug world right? oh...wait...no they didnt, all they did was ruin two mens lives at the expense of tax payers.
-------------------- grassman said:
I remember being in DARE when i was much younger and some of the stories they would tell you are not only ridiculous, but completely untrue. One story was that a woman was on LSD and thought her infant was a turkey so she baked it in the oven. Now I look back and think thats hilarious, but at the time I guess it scared me.
Quote: They said they don't want smugglers to learn how they search vehicles for drugs.
that's no excuse for withholding evidence for a case, or leaving a client and his lawyer out of the know.
Quote: Rivera was right to assume that the SUV had no marijuana in it, Hewitt said.
Uhh, duh? If I bought a car from a dealership, I'd expect there to be no drugs in it. I mean, that'd be nice if it was included with the purchase, maybe then I might buy a car from a car dealership...
Quote: “We owe so much money that this isn't going to solve everything,” he said. “I don't feel like this has solved my life.”
How sad. An innocent man bullied to hell by the U.S. government, and left for dead pretty much. This is one of the many reasons why America sucks.
-------------------- "As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." --Max Planck