A Washington State Patrol trooper didn’t violate the agency’s policy of hands-off immigration enforcement when investigating a car crash that led to a man’s detention by federal immigration agents, an administrative review has found.
Yet the State Patrol’s review found Trooper Brandy Kessler violated two other agency rules during the encounter, which ended with Armando Chavez Corona being taken away for deportation in February.
According to federal officials, Chavez was convicted of a felony drug charge and was deported four times from the United States between 1996 and 2000.
On Feb. 9, his vehicle was hit by another vehicle on northbound Interstate 5 in Tacoma. When Kessler did a routine check of Chavez’s driver’s license, a warning popped up from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying he was a previously deported felon and to contact the agency for confirmation.
After Kessler contacted ICE to confirm details of the warning, federal immigration officials came to the crash scene and took Chavez into custody.
State Patrol policy doesn’t prevent troopers from contacting federal immigration authorities. But State Patrol rules prevent troopers from detaining a person for extra time to determine his or her immigration status, or to give immigration agents additional time to arrive at a scene.
An administrative review completed March 28 found Kessler didn’t intentionally delay the collision investigation to give ICE agents extra time to arrive, though she had offered to do so during a phone conversation, said State Patrol spokesman Kyle Moore.
“That was found to be untrue,” Moore said Tuesday.
However, the same administrative review found Kessler “demonstrated unacceptable conduct” through a comment she made to a community member who was riding in her patrol car.
Moore said the inappropriate comment occurred after an ICE agent asked Kessler to confirm Chavez’s father’s surname and his mother’s maiden name.
“When she was going to go out there to ask that, she said, ‘No habla ingles,’ ” Moore said.
Moore said Kessler appeared to be implying Chavez might not answer the questions due to a language barrier or inability to speak English. The Spanish phrase translates to, “I don’t speak English.”
“It was almost a little bit in a mocking tone,” Moore said.
“The concern is that members of the community could view that as not the conduct they could expect from a State Patrol employee.”
Kessler also was found to have violated State Patrol policy by turning off her mobile in-car video system before her encounter with Chavez was complete. Moore said Kessler turned off the video system before issuing Chavez a ticket for driving without insurance.
Kessler received a letter of reprimand for the two policy violations that will go in her file, Moore said. Her duties remain unchanged, he said.
The News Tribune has requested a written copy of the administrative review, but has yet to receive it. A reporter’s attempts to reach Kessler for comment proved unsuccessful Tuesday evening.
Moore said Kessler has worked for the State Patrol in various capacities for at least 25 years.
State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, previously questioned why the State Patrol was investigating the trooper’s conduct at all, given Chavez’s criminal record. He said he worried launching the administrative review would discourage troopers from contacting federal immigration authorities in the future, and accused Gov. Jay Inslee of trying to make a political statement.
Inslee, a Democrat who oversees the State Patrol, has been sharply critical of President Donald Trump’s hard-line policies on immigration, including Trump’s threats to crack down on sanctuary jurisdictions that don’t assist federal immigration officials.
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the outcome of the internal investigation “confirms the patrol’s earlier assurances that this was a routine and standard review.”
“It’s very unfortunate that some chose to jump to irresponsible conclusions,” Smith said.
O’Ban didn’t respond to a reporter’s call for comment Tuesday evening.
Grace Chavez, Chavez’s wife, previously alleged the State Patrol had violated her husband’s civil rights. In February, she said she was considering legal action against the agency.
Reached by phone Tuesday, she said she couldn’t discuss the incident and needed to talk to her attorney, whose contact information she declined to provide to a reporter.
She wouldn’t confirm if her husband was still in the United States or had already been deported.
In February, federal officials said Chavez was in ICE custody and awaiting deportation.