WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), citing "misunderstandings" he said were caused by a news account, Friday scrapped legislation to establish federal criminal penalties for the use of excess force by federal law enforcement agents.
Bates withdrew the bill, the subject of a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Thursday, after a news story on the hearing in The Times mistakenly quoted him as saying that some agents of the U.S. Border Patrol have a "Rambo-type" mentality.
Bates did sharply criticize escalating violence along the California-Mexico border, calling it a "war zone," but the characterization of border agents actually was made by a San Diego alien-rights activist who testified at the hearing. The erroneous quotation triggered "probably the biggest reaction we've had from our constituents on any issue" and caused "incredible problems," a Bates aide said.
Said Bates: "I regret the misunderstanding that arose from my introduction of this legislation. The bill was introduced to correct an inequity in federal law and was not in any way meant to criticize the Border Patrol. I hope that my action today will remove any ill feelings that have resulted from this misunderstanding."
Boy, 12, Wounded
Bates filed the legislation after federal officials last year did not prosecute a Border Patrol agent who shot and wounded a 12-year-old Mexican boy who was tossing stones at another agent across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The U.S. attorney's office said it lacked legal jurisdiction to seek federal charges, and San Diego authorities concluded that the shooting was justified under California's deadly force law because an officer was being attacked.
Bates' bill was aimed at establishing grounds for federal criminal charges in future incidents involving agents who "use greater force than is necessary" in the line of duty.
Bates decided to withdraw the legislation, an aide said, because much of the public misinterpreted the erroneous "Rambo" quotation as a statement of Bates' views on all immigration policies. The aide said Bates is a backer of immigration-law revisions first proposed by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) and has filed legislation to boost Border Patrol ranks by 200 agents in the 1987 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Sees Lack of Support
The aide also cited a "disappointing" lack of support for the legislation by the U.S. attorney for the San Diego district, Peter K. Nunez, and San Diego County Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller as a factor in Bates' decision to withdraw the bill.
Miller, contacted Friday, said he was asked to appear at the House hearing to testify in favor of the legislation but declined because of a scheduling conflict. He also said he favors a similar proposal, drafted by Nunez, because it "is clearer and gets to the point and gets rid of the problem."
Nunez said Friday that he has not been notified by his Justice Department superiors of any request for his testimony and added that he personally favors "closing some loopholes" in the federal law in a manner similar to that proposed by Bates.