SAN YSIDRO — In a new get-tough policy designed to curb illegal drug use, U.S. Atty. Peter K. Nunez said Monday that his office will prosecute all persons caught smuggling drugs into the United States, no matter how small the amount of narcotics involved.
Previously, U.S. Customs officials were authorized to handle cases involving small amounts of illegal drugs as administrative matters, in which the smuggler was fined and the drugs were confiscated. Under the policy that went into effect Monday, all cases, including those involving small amounts for personal use, could be prosecuted as felonies.
However, Nunez, who announced the policy at a press conference at the San Ysidro port of entry, said that most first-time offenders will probably continue to be charged with misdemeanors.
The new plan is unique to the Southern District of California, which encompasses San Diego and Imperial counties. There are four ports of entry in the two counties, which border Mexico.
"We're trying to remind people that it's a crime to possess any amount of narcotics . . . and that includes small amounts smuggled for personal use," Nunez said.
District Director Allan J. Rappoport estimated that 40 people are arrested every month at San Ysidro for attempting to smuggle various amounts of narcotics. Some are arrested after vehicle searches, and others are pedestrians arrested for attempting to smuggle drugs hidden on their person.
Under the new strategy, prosecutors also will be able to seize vehicles, even in cases in which the suspect is a pedestrian when arrested. Rappoport, who attended the press conference, said that people returning from Mexico who walk drugs across the border frequently park their cars in San Ysidro and that justifies the seizures.
The old policy also allowed the vehicle seizures, even in cases that were handled administratively at the border. The old policy, however, allowed a person to appeal the seizure of his car in an administrative case; under the new policy, all seizures will be final, regardless of the amount of drugs seized, Rappoport said.
Nunez said the decision to prosecute all cases stems from an effort to stop the demand for illegal drugs, but he added that the highly publicized border arrests of San Diego Padres pitcher LaMarr Hoyt also were instrumental in shaping the new policy.
Hoyt, 31, was arrested Feb. 10 at the San Ysidro crossing. He was caught with marijuana, Valium tablets and Quaaludes, fined $620 after an administrative hearing and forced to forfeit the drugs.
Customs agents arrested Hoyt again Oct. 28 at the pedestrian checkpoint after they found nearly 500 pills hidden in his trousers. Most of the pills were Valium but others were propoxyphene, an addictive painkiller. Hoyt is scheduled to be sentenced today under a plea bargain to 60 days in federal prison for the latest arrest.
He also was arrested Feb. 18 by San Diego police, who confiscated less than an ounce of marijuana and a switch-blade knife when they stopped Hoyt's car on Balboa Avenue.
Nunez said he expects most of the new drug cases to be prosecuted in a U.S. magistrate's court by prosecutors who handle the hundreds of illegal immigration cases that are heard in San Diego each year. Unless the drug seizure is a substantial one, most persons charged with drug smuggling under the new policy will probably be charged with a felony and a misdemeanor count.
The same strategy is used in illegal immigration cases and usually results in the offender agreeing to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge in exchange for a prosecution agreement to drop the felony charge. The end result is usually probation and/or a fine.
Misdemeanor drug convictions in U.S. District Court are punishable by a mandatory fine of $1,000 and up to a year in prison.