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Civil Rights Activist Sues Border Patrol Over Altercation

Lawsuit: Man alleges that he was jailed and his camera was broken after filming agents as they questioned trolley riders.

September 20, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A local activist filed a civil rights lawsuit against Border Patrol agents Thursday, charging that officers tackled him, smashed his camera and threw him in jail for 25 hours after he tried to film them questioning riders on a downtown trolley.

Benjamin Prado, a 26-year-old community organizer and coordinator of the La Raza Rights Coalition, said he wants his lawsuit to send a message to the Border Patrol.

"Abusive acts like this happen far too frequently," said Prado's lawyer, Michael Marrinan. "When abusive agents act in this manner, it is important they be held accountable."

Border Patrol spokesman Raleigh Leonard said he could not comment on the suit because the incident is under investigation. But he said the agent involved, J. Carroll, is still on active duty.

Prado's suit stems from an incident in February, when Border Patrol agents were boarding buses and trolleys in San Diego to check whether riders were in the U.S. legally. The operation provoked an outcry and, according to transportation officials, contributed to a 30% decline in ridership on the city's transit system.

Scores of riders, many of them legal U.S. residents and citizens, complained that they had been pulled off buses and trolleys to show their documents and in many cases made late to work, said Gonzalo Lopez, director of community relations for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development Board. "Nobody in this country is used to that kind of action," he said.

Eventually, the transportation agency complained to the Border Patrol, and the checks stopped.

Border Patrol officials said they stopped the operation not because of complaints but because agents were redeployed to more vital places, such as airports. Leonard said the agency considered the operation a success: 217 undocumented immigrants were arrested in one week.

But Prado and activists from the American Friends Service Committee charged that the Border Patrol's actions amounted to racial profiling. They said they began videotaping the actions of agents to raise public awareness. Border Patrol officials said they were not engaged in racial profiling, and were questioning all riders regardless of whether they appeared Latino.

According to his lawsuit, Prado went to the trolley station about 5 p.m. Feb. 25 and began filming agents as they checked riders' documents. Suddenly, according to the lawsuit and a videotape of the encounter filmed by Prado, an agent rushed up to Prado and accused him of impeding the officers.

The agent, identified in the lawsuit as Carroll, grabbed Prado's camera and demanded to know his citizenship. Prado did not answer and tried to protect his camera.

At that point, agents forced Prado to the ground and ordered him to state his citizenship or be arrested, according to the suit.

When Prado responded that he was a U.S. citizen, he was allowed to get back up and his camera was returned. About 10 minutes later, several agents tackled him, handcuffed him and arrested him. His camera was thrown to the ground and broken. Prado was choked and agents shoved their knees into his back, causing him severe neck injury, according to the lawsuit.

Prado was packed into a Border Patrol van and driven to a detention facility in Imperial Beach before being taken to a federal prison in downtown San Diego. Twenty-five hours later, he was released without charges being filed. His broken camera, with the record of the incident intact, was returned three days later, according to the suit.

Leonard said that after that incident officials provided legal training for agents "just to make sure everyone was on the same page in regards to pedestrian encounters."

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