SAN CLEMENTE — Opponents of high-speed Border Patrol chases into populated communities applauded a federal judgment holding the agency liable for deaths that resulted from such a chase.
Dr. Thomas Shaver, a trauma surgeon at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center who has treated the victims of such high-speed chases, said the ruling keeps the Border Patrol "accountable for putting innocent people at risk."
In San Clemente, a city that has been subjected to high-speed chases for decades because of its proximity to the San Onofre border checkpoint, officials said the ruling underlines their desire to keep chases off their streets.
But an Orange County man who is a former regional director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service blasted the ruling as "outrageous."
"Who appointed that judge?" asked an angry Harold Ezell, who worked for the INS during the Reagan administration.
Ezell said the same people who criticize the Border Patrol for not containing the United States border now want to hold the agency legally responsible when accidents occur.
"It's a terrible decision," Ezell said. "I wish that during chases, the Border Patrol officers had the ability to turn the engine off of the suspects they're chasing."
U.S. District Judge Linda M. McLaughlin ruled in Santa Ana on Tuesday that the federal agency must pay $1 million to the relatives of five people killed during a high-speed chase through Temecula in 1992.
The incident occurred after agents spotted a Chevrolet Suburban suspected of carrying illegal immigrants at the Mexican border and began chasing it north on Interstate 15 into Temecula where the driver ultimately ran a red light near a high school and struck a sedan carrying a father, his son and a friend, killing them all. The Suburban then careened into two teenagers, a brother and a sister, killing them.
One of the 12 people riding in the Suburban died later of injuries suffered in the crash.
While the 16-year-old driver of the Suburban was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder, his conviction was overturned on appeal and is being reviewed by the California Supreme Court.
McLaughlin, who was appointed to the federal court by former President George Bush in 1992, found the fleeing immigrants 75% responsible for the deaths and placed the remaining responsibility on the Border Patrol.
The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, which represented the Border Patrol, has not decided whether to appeal the ruling, spokesman Thom Mrozek said.
San Diego Sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Johnny N. Williams issued a statement Wednesday calling the Temecula incident "tragic" and noted that the agency has substantially revised its pursuit policy since that time.
But he added that the Border Patrol will continue to combat "the highly lucrative and ruthless alien smuggling trade."
"It is the smugglers, not our officers, who routinely put human lives in jeopardy," Williams said.
But Shaver, however, who has been an outspoken opponent of Border Patrol chases for years, said local officials and the media should continue to closely monitor the actions of the agency.
"Even though we don't want illegal immigrants coming across the border, they are nonviolent acts," Shaver said. "When pursuits put innocent people in our community at risk, that's just not acceptable."
San Clemente City Councilman Steve Apodaca said he hopes "the Border Patrol and everyone" learn from these mistakes. Apodaca said the city has won assurances from the agency that it "will not conduct high-speed pursuits into our city."
"If they are pursuing a vehicle, they will hand off control of the pursuit to one of the other agencies, either the Orange County Sheriff's Department or the California Highway Patrol," Apodaca said.
But former Border Patrol agent Bill King, 68, who was formerly the head of the agency's academy in Brunswick, Ga., called the judge's ruling, "wrong, dead wrong."
"First and foremost, if anyone is to be blamed for this [accident], it is the people who arranged for the smuggling of those aliens and the driver," King said, noting that the ruling sets a "bad precedent."