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Border Patrol Chases Questioned : Safety: Review of policy on high-speed pursuits takes on new urgency after Temecula crash that killed five.

June 04, 1992|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and RAY TESSLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TEMECULA — The Border Patrol is considering changing its policy for high-speed chases to curtail dangerous pursuits by agents in densely populated areas such as Southern California, agency officials said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, two congressmen asked for an investigation of the crash Tuesday in which a speeding truck fleeing from the Border Patrol killed four students and a parent in front of Temecula Valley High School. The legislators questioned whether the Border Patrol's "second front" of checkpoints north of the border is worth keeping.

Hundreds of tearful and angry students lit candles and laid flowers at the accident scene Wednesday morning. The Temecula City Council called a special meeting on the fatal crash for this evening.

The Border Patrol's chase policy generally resembles guidelines followed by other agencies around the region, according to law enforcement officials. But it differs in one aspect: Other police agencies try to avoid high-speed chases of people, such as most illegal immigrants, who are not suspected of serious or violent crimes.

"Within any agency, you have to ask, is this chase really worth it," said CHP spokesman John Marinez, who refrained from commenting on the Tuesday incident. "The No. 1 concern is the safety of the public."

The two congressman who asked for an investigation of the pursuit, which began near the Interstate 15 immigration checkpoint near Temecula, sent a sternly worded letter to INS Commissioner Gene McNary questioning the safety and usefulness of freeway immigration checkpoints.

"It appears that the checkpoints have not proven successful," said the letter from U.S. Reps. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) and Al McCandless (R-Riverside). "To the contrary, the incidence of high-speed chases originating at these checkpoints is alarming to us. We know of no one who believes any high-speed chase is worth the life of any individual."

The congressmen asked McNary for an investigation by "an objective third party" and also asked him to provide an evaluation of the freeway checkpoints, which are more than 50 miles north of the international border. The second checkpoint is on Interstate 5 near San Clemente.

INS officials have maintained that checkpoints are a valuable "second front" against illegal immigration and drug trafficking, and they repeated those contentions after Tuesday's accident, which is being investigated by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

According to witnesses and a preliminary review by the Border Patrol, the pursuing agents attempted to curtail the chase by slowing their marked sedan shortly before the accident at the intersection about a mile east of Interstate 15.

Sheriff's investigators planned to decide late Wednesday whether to file murder charges against the driver of the speeding truck, a 16-year-old Mexican national and suspected smuggler of illegal immigrants. They are also considering charges of auto theft against two of the 12 passengers--Eddie Rodriguez, 22, and Celso Rodriguez, 35--who are suspected smugglers.

Coincidentally, as speeding ambulances converged Tuesday morning on the corner next to Temecula Valley High School, Border Patrol officials from around California were sitting down at their Laguna Niguel regional headquarters to discuss pursuit policy, officials said. The review began several months ago, said Border Patrol spokesman Steve Kean.

"They are taking a look at the increase in the alien apprehensions, the increase in the overall traffic and population, and the urbanization of the border," Kean said.

Up to now, the Border Patrol has had a single nationwide policy. The Temecula incident may result in new restrictions on chases in areas such as the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, which includes the border, a densely populated urban expanse and the freeway checkpoints, according to an official who asked not to be named.

INS spokesman Duke Austin confirmed that the agency is talking about a region-by-region policy.

"There's a recognition that there are differences between the middle of Texas and downtown San Diego," Austin said. "That has been in the past a topic of discussion, and I'm sure it will be a topic of discussion in the future."

Sheriff's investigators and Temecula city officials have scheduled a meeting today with Border Patrol officials to discuss the incident and pursuits generated by the checkpoint, which have resulted in at least two other accidents, one of them fatal.

Temecula city officials also have contacted San Clemente police, who in past years have expressed concern about several serious traffic accidents in that city.

Border Patrol pursuit policies, which call for agents to discontinue a chase if an undue hazard exists, generally mirror those followed by local law enforcement, according to San Clemente Police Chief Albert Ehlow and others familiar with the agency.

Some agencies have more stringent restrictions, however. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency prohibits most high-speed chases unless an agent's life is at stake, according to Los Angeles spokesman Ralph Lochridge.

Several police officials said they have found the Border Patrol to be cautious and conscientious during high-speed chases, and they pointed out that smugglers often show reckless disregard for safety, abandoning moving vehicles or forcing illegal immigrants to jump from cars during chases.

On the other hand, police said their agencies would often choose not to pursue nonviolent suspects because their policies focus on chasing dangerous criminals.

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