Illegal immigrants in Phoenix police shooting had run-ins with the law last year

By Ray Stern

Following a rancorous public debate, the Phoenix Police Department last month toughened its policy toward illegal immigrants, allowing cops to report people to tederal immigration authorities far more often than before.

But Phoenix officers still aren't supposed to ask about immigration status during routine traffic stops.

The Phoenix police union and various anti-illegal-immigrant groups want police to have that power, but Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris and Mayor Phil Gordon don’t. They claim that it would lead to inefficient police work – officers would waste their time doing a job that should be left to immigration agents, while other types of law enforcement would be neglected.

Maybe so.

Then again, it might also lead to fewer officers being shot at.

On Tuesday, two men were arrested after a marked Phoenix police car came under fire. Bullet holes were later found in the car’s roof and on its passenger side, but neither of the two officers inside was hurt.

Illegal immigration opponents have already made hay with the fact that both men, Juan Beltran Nunez, 29, and Ricardo Hurtado, 24, were in the country illegally.

Juan Beltran Nunez (left) and Ricardo Hurtado.

But under a different police policy, Nunez, the alleged shooter, could well have been taken off the streets last year -- after he was stopped by Phoenix police and cited with traffic violations.

Court records show that when Nunez was stopped last year, he had no proof of insurance, no vehicle registration and no valid driver’s license, but Phoenix police are prohibited by department policy from asking about immigration status during traffic stops. So Nunez was sent on his way -- and police never found he'd been deported three times before. A warrant was issued for his arrest in September after he blew off the penalties for his tickets.

Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, says Nunez’s case is exactly why the police union still believes the recent policy change didn't go far enough.

This isn't to say that rank-and-file officers who make up the union’s members don't appreciate the new policy toward illegal immigrants, Spencer says. “It’s a lot different than the ‘will-not-call-ICE’” policy,” he says.

Previously, police didn’t contact ICE about suspects busted for misdemeanors, but they do now. The new policy goes even further, Spencer says, allowing officers to contact ICE – with a supervisor’s permission – anytime they suspect an illegal immigrant is connected to a crime. What this means, he explains, is that if four people are in a car and the driver is suspected of a criminal misdemeanor or felony, the other three in the car are “connected” to the crime, and therefore ICE can be notified about all four.

Spencer says union members tell him that the new policy is working well so far. But the union’s position is that it only got 80 percent of what it wanted -- it wants the discretion to call ICE about people like Nunez, too.

The only one hurt in Tuesday’s shooting was one of the suspects, who was bitten by a police dog, but it was the fatal shooting of Phoenix police Officer Nick Erfle last year by a Mexican national that prompted the controversial policy change for Phoenix police that just took effect.

Erfle’s killer had been arrested by Scottsdale police for a misdemeanor 16 months before the shooting, and was later released despite the fact that he was an illegal immigrant who'd been previously deported.

Spencer says he had predicted it was only a matter of time before a case similar to Erfle’s came up again.

“Fortunately, another Nick Erfle didn’t happen, but we missed another tragedy [on Tuesday] by 12 inches,” he says, referring to the reported distance between bullet holes and the officers in the patrol car.

Tuesday’s action started near 35th Avenue and Culver. Officers Michael Smith and Beau Jensen, who have been on the force for three and four years, respectively, radioed about 10:40 p.m. that a man in a maroon Chevy Tahoe had pointed a gun at them. They radioed a few minutes later that they’d been shot at, according to press release by Detective Stacie Derge.

The officers tailed the Tahoe until the suspects bailed into an apartment complex. Backup teams surrounded the place and sent in a police dog, which bit one of the men before both were taken into custody.

The second suspect, Ricardo Hurtado, 24, was no law-abiding undocumented worker, either.

Hurtado was busted last year for vehicle theft and possession of burglary tools. He was sentenced to probation, and court records show that he was ordered to never return to the United States following his voluntary deportation.

But he apparently sneaked back in: Yet another example of the country's failed immigration policy.

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