Edgar Vargas Arzate was on his way to his August 18 court date for a previous run-in with police when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents stopped their car and nabbed the undocumented immigrant at gun point. Now, Arzate's public defender, Frank Bittar, has formally requested an investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) into the ICE arrest alleging it was an obstruction of justice.
But the complaint doesn't stop there. As readers recall, Vargas appeared to be surrendering when cornered by Santa Ana police on the night of June 20. Cops pounded him with fists, batons and Tasers as he laid face-down on the driveway. Home surveillance cameras caught the incident in a viral video. Police arrested Vargas on suspicion of attempted burglary. He had every intention of fighting the charges until ICE detained him right before his preliminary hearing.
According to a copy of the crime-arrest report obtained by the Weekly, Santa Ana police responded on July 19 to a late-night "prowler call." They searched for Vargas as he dashed through several backyards. The pursuit came to an end in front of a home on Sycamore Street. Santa Ana officer Brian Booker relayed an account on his use of force next.
"He stated as he walked towards Arazate [sic] to place him into handcuffs, Arazate [sic] reached towards Officer Booker and grabbed him by his right leg pulling him down," it reads. "Officer Booker felt Arazate [sic] was about to tackle him and possibly have access to his duty weapon." The cop counted 3-4 blows to the back of Vargas' head, though the video shows six.
In addition to attempted burglary, the Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) also charged Vargas with battery on a peace officer. The felony was enhanced by the allegation that Vargas "inflicted great bodily injury" on the cop. Booker stated in the police report that he believed he suffered a broken hand and was in such pain he couldn't even type up his own account of events.
"The notion that an officer who is pounding and pummeling a surrendered man injured himself and then alleges the victim is the assaulter is patently ridiculous," Bittar tells the Weekly. "If it wasn't so deeply disturbing and offensive, it would be hilarious, something perhaps fitting for The Onion."
The Vargas case isn't the first time officer Booker has allegedly used questionable force. He Tased Mario Marin on the night of December 28, 2011 while trying to subdue him. Other Santa Ana police joined in, using their knees and body weight to restrain the schizophrenic man. Marin died of his injuries five days later. The OCDA ultimately cleared Booker and the other officers in a followup investigation noting Marin as the aggressor.
While the OCDA declined to press charges against Booker and company then, they stacked attempted burglary, battery on a peace officer felonies and unlawful tampering with a vehicle, resisting an officer misdemeanors against Vargas. The family that made the original prowler call declined to press charges for attempted burglary. As it turned out, Vargas was a friend of someone who no longer lived at the residency. The undocumented immigrant posted bail and planned to fight the charges against him at the August 18 hearing; however immigration authorities nabbed him on his way to court.
"The timing of the ICE arrest was unusual and irregular," the complaint to the DOJ reads. "Usually defendants answer to their charges first and, it is only then, that removal proceedings are initiated." Vargas didn't get his day in court and now is in ICE detention at Theo Lacy awaiting deportation proceedings.
"It is a one-in-a-million chance that ICE would act on its own to remove someone off the streets when he's going to fight these erroneous charges," Bittar says. He alleges that Santa Ana police tipped off immigration authorities. It's one of many questions at the heart of the requested federal investigation.
"From our perspective, we have exhausted the remedies through local channels," Bittar says. He believes Santa Ana police stonewalled him and that the OCDA rubber-stamped police claims in filing charges against his client. "We felt that the only way to seek justice is to address the matter with DOJ civil rights division, a responsible agency."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2