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Fifth Circuit Upholds Convictions of Three INS Officers

The Fifth Circuit has upheld the convictions and sentences of three Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deportation officers for excessive use of force and deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of a prisoner.

Richard Gonzales, Louis Gomez and Carlos Reyna were INS deportation officers working with the elite San Antonio Fugitive Unit when they conducted a raid on a house in Bryan, Texas early in the morning of March 25, 2001. During the raid they took down Serafin Carrera, breaking his neck and paralyzing him from the neck down. Carrera died eleven months later.

The defendants were not charged with using excessive force and injuring Carrera, or for causing his death. Rather, they were prosecuted due to their treatment of Carrera after they broke his neck.

As Carrera lay handcuffed on the kitchen floor, screaming that his neck had been broken and he needed hospitalization, the defendants hurled insults at him. Gonzales even called him “cabron” and invited the others to wipe their feet on Carrera’s prone form.

The defendants then dragged Carrera from the house, across the backyard and into an INS van. Carrera continued to complain of great pain and paralysis. On the way to an INS processing point at the Brazos County Jail parking lot, Reyna asked the van driver to give Carrera a “screen test” – hitting the brakes without forewarning so the prisoner’s face slams against the dividing screen in the vehicle.

At the Brazos County Jail parking lot, the defendants dragged Carrera off the van, hitting his head on the way out. While taunting him and playing with his limp body, they dragged him across the parking lot. They threatened to put him in the INS bus’ baggage compartment. Then Gonzales came up with a bright idea. “Let’s Mace the fucker, see if he budges,” he said.

The defendants dragged Carrera onto the bus, which had tinted windows so no one could see them. Then they pepper sprayed the prone Carrera and left him on the bus unattended. They neither summoned medical help for Carrera nor monitored him despite the fact that he was left with his eyes swollen shut, lying handcuffed on the bus floor with a broken neck.

Three hours after Carrera’s neck was broken, the bus left for New Braunsfeld with Carrera still on the floor. Another three hours later, it arrived. The intake nurse at New Braunsfeld refused to take custody of him without a medical evaluation. Carrera was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, then airlifted to a trauma center in San Antonio. Gonzales attempted a cover-up but was unsuccessful.

The defendants were tried by a federal jury and sentenced by a federal judge. All three were convicted of deliberate indifference to Carrera’s serious medical needs while he was a prisoner in their custody. Gonzales was also convicted of use of unreasonable force by pepper spraying Carrera. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison and three years of supervised release on each count. Gomez was sentenced to 41 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Reyna received 33 months in prison and three years of supervised release. The defendants appealed.

On January 17, 2006, the Fifth Circuit denied their appeal and upheld the convictions and sentences. On the defendants’ claim that they thought Carrera was faking his injury, the Court noted that Reyna and Gomez were trained in trauma management and had been taught how to recognize and treat spinal injuries, scuttling that defense. See: United States v. Gonzales, 436 F.3d 560 (5th Cir. 2006), cert. denied.

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