Mecklenburg Court Used To Skirt Deportation?

Gary L. Wright and Melissa Manware, Charlotte Observer, October 1, 2006

Mecklenburg’s DWI treatment court is accepting illegal immigrants and some of them may be avoiding deportation because of it.

Robert Guy, who heads North Carolina’s probation program, said probation officers have overheard Mecklenburg’s DWI treatment court officials talk about sending suspected illegal immigrants to treatment centers, so they don’t go to jail and have their immigration status checked.

“These people need to be in jail and deported,” Guy said. “I’m not going to tolerate this.

“I’m hellbent that these people need to be deported. If they’re illegal, they need to be punished and deported.”

The DWI treatment court is an intense, 12-month voluntary program for people convicted of drunken driving at least twice. It requires substance abuse treatment, drug testing and frequent meetings with a judge, probation officer and case coordinator.

Todd Nuccio, Mecklenburg’s trial court administrator, and Janeanne Tourtellott, the drug treatment court administrator, said DWI treatment court officials are not shielding illegal immigrants from deportation.

“There have been no discussions or concerted plan to shield illegal immigrants from incarceration and deportation,” Nuccio said.

Tourtellott said the six-year-old DWI treatment court has about 80 participants and a 55 percent graduation rate.

She said about 40 percent of the participants are Latino. She doesn’t know how many are illegal immigrants.

Nuccio and Tourtellott said a small number of illegal immigrants could be avoiding deportation through the program, but court administrators aren’t helping them do it. They said the program accepts every eligible offender, regardless of legal status.

Nuccio says the DWI court focuses on treating repeat offenders. They don’t even inquire about citizenship.

“Whether they are legal or not, the reason we put them in DWI court is because it reduces recidivism, costs less and improves public safety,” he said.

“We don’t inquire about their citizenship status. We don’t ask about ethnicity. We don’t ask about gender. We don’t ask about race. If the judge sentences them to the program, we service them.”

In a memo last week, Guy, director of the N.C. Department of Correction’s division of community corrections, directed his probation officers in Charlotte to report any illegal immigrants to federal immigration officials.

“The Division of Community Corrections does not support or condone illegal immigrants under our supervision…,” Guy wrote. “It is our responsibility to report illegal immigrants to the proper federal authorities if we have knowledge or reasonable suspicion of their illegal status.”

Sheriff’s program

Last spring, Mecklenburg Sheriff Jim Pendergraph unveiled a new enforcement system in which deputies check the residency status of every foreign-born person brought to the county jail on criminal charges. Since then, DWI offenders eligible for treatment court must do any required jail time first. Nuccio said court administrators don’t want to spend time and money on a person only to later have them deported. Illegal immigrants arrested for DWI before the sheriff began his immigration enforcement program can avoid the status check. But the loophole will close soon because everyone arrested in Mecklenburg County and born outside the United States now faces a check of their legal status.

Pendergraph is outraged that illegal immigrants may be avoiding deportation.

“We’ve got court officials trying to circumvent a system that took a lot of effort and resources to identify people who are in this country illegally and committing crimes and have them removed,” Pendergraph said.

“All these defendants have been convicted of DWI—some multiple times. We shouldn’t have any hesitancy identifying illegal immigrants driving on our roads drunk and getting them out of our country.”

Guy said he gave Mecklenburg’s sheriff the names of five Hispanic men who were convicted of DWI and are in Mecklenburg’s DWI treatment court.

Two of the men, Guy said, have been sent to a drug treatment facility in Sampson County. He said the other three are on a waiting list to be admitted to the out-of-county treatment facility.

The sheriff says all five men are illegal immigrants and were arrested before his enforcement program began. Two of the Hispanic men have been convicted of DWI three times, according to court records.

Tourtellott could not immediately say whether the treatment court sent the men to the treatment facility. She said the court team—a judge, prosecutor, probation officer, case coordinator and treatment providers—does send some participants for inpatient treatment if they violate the program’s rules and that the Sampson County center, called Harvest House, is where native Spanish speakers would be sent. She said it is the only bilingual and bicultural treatment facility in North Carolina.

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Pendergraph thinks it’s a waste of resources to help illegal immigrants get treatment.

“It’s no secret that there are limited resources to deal with alcohol and drug abuse,” the sheriff said. “Why would we spend a dime on an illegal immigrant who has been convicted of DWI?

“Why wouldn’t we use the limited resources we have for U.S. citizens who need the treatment?”

Nuccio said treatment courts are a sentencing option for judges whether the defendants are illegal or not—and its job is not to ferret out illegal immigrants and send them home.

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Hickory—A 20-year-old drunken driver ran a red light and crashed into a pickup truck Friday night, killing a woman and critically injuring her husband, police said.

Police charged Enrique Cardenas Zavala of Hickory with driving while impaired, driving after consuming alcohol while under 21, failing to stop at a red light and involuntary manslaughter.

It was Cardenas Zavala’s second DWI charge in less than 14 months. He was charged with DWI in Catawba County in August 2005 and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving to endanger. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined.

The wreck Friday happened just before 10 p.m. in downtown Hickory. Jerry and Rena Moore were driving north on Fourth Street Northwest when Cardenas Zavala’s 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix, traveling west on Third Avenue Northwest, struck the Moores’ truck, police said.

The couple were ejected from the truck. It’s unclear whether the Moores were wearing seat belts or whether their truck, a 1951 Chevrolet, was equipped with them, Lt. Gary Lee said.

Paramedics rushed the couple to Frye Regional Medical Center, where Rena Moore, 55, was taken into surgery and died. Jerry Moore, 58, remained in critical condition Saturday with a fractured neck, the hospital said.

Cardenas Zavala, who was not seriously injured, failed field sobriety tests Friday night, but the arrest report didn’t indicate his blood-alcohol level, Lee said.

He has a number of past driving violations, including speeding, driving without a license and DWI.

Cardenas Zavala was being held in the Catawba County Jail Saturday under a $50,000 secured bond and is scheduled to appear in the county District Court on Monday. He could face additional charges, police said.

The Moores were Hickory natives who recently retired. Jerry Moore had been a teacher; his wife worked for the state or county, said Katherine Clark, who lived next door to the couple in the 1980s.

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