Wednesday, May 28, 2008
2 whistle-blowing agents sue Patrol, alleging retaliation.
Two Border Patrol agents assigned to Southern Arizona are suing the agency, accusing the Tucson Sector chief of illegally retaliating against them for publicly exposing illegal practices.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, says Robert Gilbert suspended the law-enforcement powers of agents Juan Curbelo and William Leafstone Jr. because they publicly disclosed a Border Patrol practice of "shotgunning," which, according to the lawsuit, involves stopping vehicles without reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed.
Since August 2007, the two have been assigned to build fences along the border. And Curbelo also drew a two-month maintenance assignment, with his duties including painting guardrails, mowing grass and unclogging sewage lines.
Dove Haber, a Border Patrol agent who handles media inquiries, said Wednesday that her agency does not comment on pending litigation.
According to the lawsuit, the two agents' problems began in 2006, when Curbelo's ex-wife, Concepcion, and children were stopped by a Border Patrol agent near Rodeo, N.M. She was charged with possessing and transporting marijuana.
The suit says Curbelo and Leafstone, reviewing the arrest report, found "numerous inconsistencies that were an effort to cover up an obvious lack of reasonable suspicion" for having stopped the vehicle in the first place.
Curbelo eventually contacted the Border Patrol's inspector general to complain, not only about the "shotgunning" but also other concerns about how his ex-wife's arrest was handled, concerns Leafstone also shared with that office.
Leafstone also agreed to testify at a hearing on behalf of Curbelo's ex-wife. The judge concluded the traffic stop was illegal and the charges against her eventually were dismissed. Within days of that hearing, the lawsuit says, Gilbert directed both to turn in their badges and firearms because the agents had "divulged sensitive Border Patrol information."
The suit, filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, contends the officers were punished for exercising their First Amendment free-speech rights, in particular the right of Leaf-stone to testify in a legal proceeding. It seeks a court order returning the men to their full job positions and responsibilities.
"It's our contention that the Border Patrol is punishing these officers for breaking the agency's 'code of silence' and shedding light on a practice that brazenly violates the privacy rights of motorists," Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said in a prepared statement.
"Rather than being suspended from their jobs, Agents Curbelo and Leafstone should be congratulated for taking a principled stand, knowing full well that it might not sit well with some of their fellow officers," he said.