Friday, September 25, 2009

Illegal immigrant fights S.F. drug charge (San Francisco Examiner)

Illegal immigrant fights S.F. drug charge

By: Brent Begin
Examiner Staff Writer
September 25, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The fate of a 23-year-old Honduran man who crossed the U.S. border illegally with the help of smugglers only to be arrested weeks later in a Tenderloin drug sting is now in the hands of a jury.

The case pits the issues of human trafficking versus illegal immigrants who commit crimes in San Francisco, a sanctuary city.

Police arrested Rigoberto Valle, 23, in an undercover “buy-bust” operation at Larkin Street and Golden Gate Avenue on June 4.

Plainclothes officers gave Valle $20 and he spit out two rocks of crack cocaine in return, according to the charges.

Valle, who listened to the trial through an interpreter, claims he was the victim of human trafficking and was forced to sell drugs in order to pay a $500 debt to a smuggler. His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Hadi Razzaq told the jury on Thursday that the smuggler, also known as a “coyote,” put a knife to Valle’s throat, forcing him to sell drugs.

This happened after an arduous desert journey from Mexico to Nogales, Ariz., in which his family member paid a $1,500 fee. His trip to San Francisco would cost him another $500, which he couldn’t pay.

But prosecutors say the trafficking defense is just a way to avoid a prison sentence. If the jury believes his story, it could spark a defense that could potentially allow illegal immigrants to deal drugs with impunity.

Assistant District Attorney Richard Hechler, in his closing statement, said Valle’s story is unbelievable because he always had a chance to escape.

“He could have run. He should have run. He didn’t run,” Hechler said.

Valle could still be deported whether he is guilty or not because authorities believe he is in the country illegally. An immigration hold was placed on him when he was arrested for a suspected drug crime.

It is not uncommon to have instances where an immigrant is blackmailed into dealing drugs to pay off coyotes, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.

“What is unusual is one of these cases proceeding to trial,” Adachi said. “It takes a lot of courage to come forward and tell what happened, and many times there is a fear of retribution.”

The jury began deliberating the case Thursday afternoon.

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