BY JAMES GILBERT - SUN STAFF WRITER
A Border Patrol agent assigned to the Yuma Sector is suing the agency, accusing it of illegally searching his personally owned vehicle and property and retaliating against him for reporting the incident to local law enforcement.
"We are very disappointed it had to come to this," said Derek Hernandez, the Yuma president of the National Border Patrol Council, Local 2595, a union representing about 17,000 agents. "The Constitution is clear. You are supposed to be able to report a crime to the police without your supervisors dragging you in and trying to intimidate you in to dropping your case."
The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, claims that the agency conducted an internal investigation into Agent Steven Streeter, alleging he engaged in slanderous conduct concerning two co-workers and failure to follow applicable rules or policies in the performance of official duties after he filed a police report with the Yuma Police Department accusing two supervisory agents of illegally searching his vehicle.
"Border Patrol agents attend one of the most rigorous law enforcement academies in the United States," Hernandez said. "And we are required to be well versed in the laws of search and seizure because we engage in searches at the border and checkpoints every day. These supervisors knew better."
The lawsuit, which also requests a jury trial, seeks a settlement of up to $1 million against the two supervisory agents who allegedly searched his vehicle and any other unnamed individuals who may have been involved in the incident in any way. It also seeks up to another $1 million in punitive and exemplary damages from those same individuals.
Hernandez said the lawsuit has been filed and is in the process of being served. Agent Kenneth Quillin, supervisory Border Patrol agent for the Yuma Sector Communications Division, however, said that as far as he knows the Sector's Council Office has not received it yet. He added that when and if it does, he would not be able to comment on it since it is pending litigation.
According to the lawsuit, when Streeter arrived for work on Nov. 1, 2010, he parked his personal Ford Raptor pickup in the east parking area between the Yuma Station and Yuma Sector Headquarter building.
Later that afternoon, as Streeter was returning to his vehicle, he and another agent allegedly observed two supervisory agents standing behind his vehicle. The lawsuit states that when the supervisory agents saw Streeter approaching they closed the tailgate of the pickup and walked away.
The only things in the back of Streeter's truck at the time were a lunch box and a duffel bag. Since nothing appeared to be missing, Streeter got into his truck and left. However, according to the lawsuit a few days later, Streeter found a handwritten note inside a closed DVD case that was inside his duffel bag when he claims it was illegally searched.
The handwritten note said "Do not watch movie on duty! Honor First." Honor First is the current motto of the Border Patrol.
Streeter, in the lawsuit, claims he did not give the two supervisory agents permission to search his vehicle, nor did he give them permission to look inside his duffel bag, which was in the bed of the pickup at the time.
The lawsuit further alleges that on Nov. 5, the Border Patrol Union filed a request with the agency, on Streeter's behalf, asking for all photographic and video images containing the area of Streeter's vehicle at the time of the incident. A complaint was also filed with the Department of Homeland Security the following day.
On Nov. 19, Streeter and the Border Patrol Union were informed by the Yuma Sector that there was no photographic or video surveillance taken of the area of Streeter's vehicle during that time.
The following month, on Dec. 31, Streeter filed a complaint with the Yuma Police Department over the incident. According to the lawsuit, that same day, when police called the Yuma Sector about the incident, they were told the matter was being handled "internally."
Then on or about Jan. 12, the lawsuit states that while Streeter was in Georgia for a month-long training course, he received a notice to appear before the Office of Internal Affairs.
According to the lawsuit, Streeter, who is still employed as a Border Patrol agent, was being accused of slandering co-workers and failure to follow applicable rules or policies in the performance of his duties.